Wine Speak 2020–a recap

2020 was the 3rd Year for our Wine Speak event.  With every year, we look to present topics & insights from very different perspectives.  We believe this fosters continual learning & more & more camaraderie, by including new speakers who have something profound to share.  As you will notice, 2020 is still New World centric, but we are segueing to more discussions including terroir rather than only about grape varieties. We therefore also seasoned the list of speakers with some from faraway places such Argentina, Spain & France, just to add further dimensions to the sharing & discussions.  It goes back to our original core value—how can we affect change?

With that thought in mind, here is our list of panels for Wine Speak 2020.  All modesty aside, the 2020 event truly was magical.


“Sense of Place”–with Tegan Passalacqua (Turley) & Laura Catena (Catena, Argentina)

A long time winemaker friend asked us, “when are we going to start discussing “sense of place” rather than grape varieties?”   That was the inspiration for this panel.  And, in this case, rather than do a comparative tasting, we sought to bring in two speakers from very different niches on the subject. 

For example, Turley Wine Cellars from day one specialized in the Zinfandel grape variety & took the perception of what can be with this grape to a whole ‘nother platform.  Today Turley, based out of Paso Robles, features wines grown up & down California without skipping a beat in quality and media prominence.  Under the direction of winemaker Tegan Passalacqua the wines are much more transparent stylistically & seemingly crafted with balance in mind.  We are asking Tegan to come share his insights into what “sense of place” can mean from his perspective.  What a truly fabulous, “complete package” presentation Tegan expertly did.

For a completely different take on our sense of place theme, we will be featuring Laura Catena CEO of our very first Argentinean winery—Bodega Catena Zapata. “ Founded in 1902, Catena is world renowned for its pioneering role in resurrecting the Malbec grape variety and in discovering extreme high altitude terroirs in the Andean foothills of Mendoza.  Although the family has vineyards at different altitudes and aspects, their highly revered, iconic Adrianna Vineyard is their crown jewel.  Located at almost 5,000 feet elevation it has been called the Grand Cru of South America”.  The 2016 Malbec “Adrianna Vineyard River Stones” was rated 100 points by The Wine Advocate.



“Paso Robles Overview” –Moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks) & featuring Jason Haas (Tablas Creek), Jordan Fiorentini (Epoch), Steve Peck (J.Lohr) & Michael Sinor (Ancient Peaks)

We created this opportunity so attendees could learn more about this meteorically rising wine growing appellation.  To add to all of the recent media coverage, we asked moderator Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks Winery) to give us the insider’s scoop using a panel discussion with 4 of the appellations’ top winemakers—Jason Haas (Tablas Creek); Jordan Fiorentini (Epoch); Steve Peck (J Lohr) and Michael Sinor (Ancient Peaks).


Talk Story–with Bruce Neyers “My Wine Yoda

I first met Bruce Neyers back in the 1970’s when he was running the then promising, upstart Joseph Phelps winery in the Napa Valley.  Unlike many of their peers, Phelps continually challenged the norm.   While their Johannisberg Riesling bottlings created quite the revelation back then, it was their 1974 Syrah that was my first experience with a commercial California born Syrah.  In the same vintage they also conceptualized and launched “Insignia”, a premier, soon to be “game changing” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordelaise type grape varieties.  That would be quite a career for most.  In 1992, however, Bruce then took over the National Sales for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants and helped them build one of the real noteworthy, quality driven, iconic wine importers of our time, featuring true artisan, game changers from France and later Italy.  He visited with each of the wine families 2 to 4 times a year, talking story, walking vineyards & tasting their wines with them.  Who better to talk story with to learn from than my wine yoda, Bruce Neyers.


“Talk Story” —with Lionel Faury of Domaine Faury  (northern Rhone Valley, France).

The first 2 years of Wine Speak, we asked a select few New World winemakers to come share their insights, wisdom and experiences, so that we all could learn a thing or two and at the same time foster camaraderie and collaboration moving forward.  For Wine Speak 2020, while still New World centric, we will be seasoning the list of panelists with some from the Old World.  Lionel Faury was our first to confirm and we are thrilled.  This northern Rhone Valley domaine was created in 1979 (with Lionel taking over the reins from his father in 2006) and features wines from mainly the St Joseph, Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie hillsides.  This really is the world’s epicenter for Syrah & Viognier.  I brought bottles of each with me to the past 2 Wine Speak events to share, because of the mesmerizing purity, sense of place & real artisanal winemaking their wines deftly displayed.  Furthermore, wine historians believe Condrieu & Côte-Rôtie were first planted by the Romans, so there is a strong sense of place & history in their vineyards.  This domaine therefore approaches their craft with much respect and” a real attention to detail, with nothing done in haste.  Every method used encourages the grape towards greatness with the ultimate respect for its fragility” and terroir”.   I found this vigneron to be truly humble & down to earth.  It was quite a special moment watching his face as he tasted the 1995 Chave Ermitage “Cuvee Cathelin” AND the 1989 Gentaz Dervieux Côte-Rôtie .


Dream Big Darling“Wine from a Different Perspective”–with Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier & moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins (co-founder of Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks) 

Dream Big Darling is really about inspiring others.  We therefore spend quite a bit of time finding professionals who will inspire.  In the world of sommeliers, one of the truly inspirational “Hall of Fame” icons is Madeline Triffon of Southgate, Michigan.  She passed the rigorous Master Sommelier exam in 1987, becoming the first female American Master.  She persevered through all of the challenges and rose to the very  top of the profession through her hard work, true graciousness and genuine hospitality.  She is and has been a TRUE inspiration to me and I only hope you take the opportunity to hear the insights, wisdom and experiences from this legend which I believe will greatly inspire & help you moving forward.  There was real magic in the air for this panel.


Inside/Outside—“Crazy Red Blends” –with Stephan Asseo (L’Aventure, Paso Robles, California) & Emmanuel Kemiji, Master Sommelier (Clos Pissarra, Priorat, Spain)

My first really eye opening experiences with “Crazy Red Blends’ started with the 1978 Mas de Daumas Gassac, the 1977 Domaine de Trévallon and later the 1992 Grange des Pères, all from southern France.  (Because Trévallon’s red was typically an unusual blend of 50% Cabernet and 50% Syrah, it had to be labeled as Vin de Pays back then.  That’s how avant garde his concept was at the time).  Still in all 3 cases each vigneron had a clear vision what their wine was to be.  Each wine was therefore an orchestra of their terroir rather than just a horn section.  We continue these discussions with two modern day vignerons—Stephan Asseo from Paso Robles & long time Master Sommelier, Emanuel Kemiji & his Clos Pissarra wines from Priorat, Spain.  2 very different terroirs and 2 very different visions on what their wines can be.  This seminar will hopefully be as crazy as their blends—crazy good that is!  Come on, let’s talk story!  As one young, aspiring sommelier noted–“how special it was to watch these two become fast friends right before our eyes“.


Inside/Outside—“Cabernet Sauvignon”–with Thomas Brown (Rivers Marie, Napa Valley) &  Fred Dame Master Sommelier (Daou, Paso Robles) 

We continue the discussions of this king of grapes with two leaders of what this grape variety can be in California.  Thomas Brown is a bonafide winemaking superstar, based in the Napa Valley with many wine projects such as Schrader and his own label Rivers Marie.  Fred Dame is one of the most iconic Master Sommeliers in the world & has now joined the Paso Robles power house, Daou, who not only created Daou Mountain and subsequently a whole slew of highly acclaimed Cabernet wines, but in doing so is also bringing Paso Robles onto the world class stage for this grape variety.


Inside/Outside “From a Wine Journalist’s Point of View”–with Matt Kettmann (Wine Enthusiast) & Randy Caparoso (The SOMM Journal). Moderated by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins ( co-founder Wine Speak/ VP of Ancient Peaks)

Here is an opportunity to taste and learn about wines from a very different perspective. I frequently taste with winemakers, sommeliers & other wine professionals, but rarely do I have the opportunity to taste wines with journalists. For this panel we will taste some wines with two of the very best in the wine media field.  It truly was quite interesting to say the least & I really adored the great synergy this two beamed & the fabulous insights into their expertise.


“Wine & Food Workshop”–with Randy Caparoso (Editor at Large, The SOMM Journal) 

Pairing wines & food is undoubtedly an art.  One of the big questions in the wine field is how do we nurture & provide insight for sommeliers & wine professionals on this art?  For Wine Speak 2019, we featured a Paso Robles paired luncheon with a local star chef, a journalist & superstar Master Sommelier Fred Dame color commentating.  To take the concept a step further we created this workshop, which will be led by Randy Caparoso, Editor at Large of The SOMM Journal.  Earlier in his career Randy was one of the founding Managing Partners of Roy’s restaurants. This group was an epicenter of some of the most progressive & imaginative wine and wine & food programs in the country, if not the world.  NO overstatement here.  We therefore asked Randy to help lead us through this much needed workshop & share his insights, knowledge & expertise at this art.  He truly has a gift & I really think he will inspire all those who attend, just as he has inspired me for all of these years.  Local Chef Jeffery Scott will prepare two dishes. Each dish will be paired with 2 different Paso Robles wines. The wines featured are as follows: Caliza Kissin’ Cousins, Alta Colina Sun Worshipper, Ancient Peaks Renegade, and Adelaida Viking Cabernet Sauvignon.  The outcome of this session will be to showcase the different ways that wines can enhance foods.


“Talk Story” on Blind Tasting”–with 3 long time, legendary Master Sommeliers—(in alphabetical order by last name)–Nunzio Alioto, Fred Dame & Madeline Triffon

When speaking to an Exam candidate recently, we asked what kind of wine should be served for their upcoming BLIND tasting.  He replied—it should be solid, well made & “true to type”.  If that is true & “fair” for the exam, shouldn’t that also be the kind of wines we seek out for our winelists?  While winetasting can be very subjective, the question then would be how do we determine as professionals/wine buyers what is “good” wine—good enough for a blind tasting and good enough for our winelists.  We have asked 3 truly iconic, legendary Master Sommeliers to help lead us through a tasting of 3 wines & provide their insights & wisdom in the selection process.   (Yes, this would be a very different methodology than tasting for the Masters.)


“Talk Story” on Hospitality–with 3 long time, legendary Master Sommeliers—(in alphabetical order by last name)–Nunzio Alioto, Fred Dame & Madeline Triffon

We therefore created this Sommelier Round Table—talking story with some of the very best—to share some of their personal, stellar hospitality experiences….also ask the audience to chime in with some memorable hospitality experiences.  Hospitality, after all, is one of the keys to excellent service, whether you work at a restaurant, winery or hotel. 

Thank you to all of you.  These were truly 3 amazing, unforgettable days of sharing, camaraderie & talking story, which will help our industry & community move forward!!!!!

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