John T Savage has worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts for over 25 years and has spent his career traveling around the world. He lives in San Francisco, has an intense passion for wine, a town home in Sonoma County and runs the travel website MySonomaCounty.com. We asked John for his best advice on ways to spot a great wine.
SPG: How did you become such a wine expert?
John Savage: I think ‘aficionado’ is a better description an expert likely has more formal education than I do on wine. But I have a serious curiosity about wine, both the experience of and business of wine. Having a weekend town home in wine country has given me access to a lot of knowledgeable people; winery owners, wine makers, club managers and tasting room hosts. I’m able to attend several winery events throughout the year and find it fascinating to listening to them! I’m not shy about asking questions and guess I’m a bit of a sponge when I have those opportunities.
SPG: What are some clues to determine if wine is good?
JS: Enjoying wine is a very personal experience so ‘good’ is really up to the individual and what you prefer, as well as the occasion for the wine. I think one of the most important indicators of a good wine is the climate where the grapes are grown. If I’m in a restaurant and I don’t see a wine I am familiar with I often select a wine based on where it is grown, that gives me a good indication of what to expect. Aging, how the wine is stored, terroir (soil make up) also all play into the characteristics of good wine.
SPG: Why does everyone ‘swirl and sniff’ their wine glass?
JS: This aerates the wine and opens up the aromas. Then when you sniff you get some of the characteristics of the wine. It’s pretty easy to identify aromas such as cherry, leather, tobacco in some Cabernets. In Pinot Grigios you might sense an earthy or mushroom aroma, while some have more of a fruit aroma. Sauvignon blancs have a wine range from grassy, citrus to guava or pineapple. It’s fun to try and see what you pick up before tasting the wine. Also 'the legs' or wine that runs down the inside of the glass indicates how much sugar is in the wine.
SPG: Do certain foods really pair well with certain wines?
JS: Shortly after moving to San Francisco I went to Postrio with friends for dinner. Brothers Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal were the Chefs (they now have some great restaurants of their own around town). We let the Sommelier pair our wine per course. That was the first time I experienced the sensation where you taste the wine, then take a bit of food and taste the wine again. The wine literally swirled around inside my head and created a sensation like I had never experienced before! It happened on each course with each wine.I believe this is both a science and an art. I’ve been looking for a cheat-sheet but it either doesn’t exist or is very well guarded.
SPG: How can we determine which food best pairs with which wine?
JS: There are some of the common pairings, like sweeter wines with spicy foods and heavy cabs with heavy meats or citrus leaning wines with creamy sauces. But Chefs, Sommeliers and experts are able to create pairings that bring out the most in the wine and enhances, but doesn’t over power the food.
SPG: Should someone pay attention to awards or reviews?
JS: Reviews, more than awards, are what I find most beneficial. It helps me gain more information and insight into different wines and wineries. But only wines that are sent out by wineries are usually reviewed and given awards. So, a winery that doesn’t have those reviews and/or awards can have equally as good of wines. The reviews and awards I enjoy the most are from a local source like wine country fairs or local organizations.
SPG: What’s your favorite wine?
JS: That is like asking which is your favorite child. I started out as a Chardonnay fan and still really enjoy the mineral influenced chardonnay from Northern Napa Valley and Alexander Valley in Sonoma. I attended a barrel tasting here and had my first experience of tasting a Cabernet Bordeaux blend. Wow, it was like drinking liquid velvet! So now I’m hooked.
Thank you to John T Savage for sharing his passion of wine with us. For information on Sonoma Valley or wine tasting in California, visit John's website MySonomaValley.com.