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Somm Scam!


My digital friend Alfonso Cevola posts on his blog, On the Wine Trail in Italy, about how an Italian culinary and wine education school, the Alma Wine Academy, is selling a “Master Sommelier diploma” for 1,044 Euros (about $1,354). This so-called Master Sommelier certification, it need not be added, has nothing to do with the real Court of Master Sommeliers, the U.K.-based organization whose tough examination parameters entitle 129 North Americans to add the prestigious letters M.S. after their name.

The Court issued a statement denying any link to the Alma Wine Academy and said it is “currently seeking through legal channels to clarify the situation.”

Alfonso learned of this through a post on a blog called Just a Good Little Wine, entitled My Master Sommelier Thesis: Josko Gravner’s Ribolla gialla and the orange wines in the U.S. market. In it, the blogger, Cristina Coari, says she is “proud to announce I’ve recently got my Master Sommelier diploma” on the basis of her thesis on “orange wines…whites so defined by the Americans for their amber and orangish color. Today, this type of wines [sic] are produced all over the world, from France to California, from New York State to Australia, from Georgia to of course Italy.” In her thesis, Cristina writes, she studied the market potential for these wines. Unfortunately, her thesis (available on her blog through a link) is in Italian, of which I speak not a word, except Ciao! and various food terms.

At first I thought Cristina’s post was a put-on, but then I Googled “orange wines” and got quite a few hits. Here’s one that calls orange wines “a current favorite of hipster sommeliers.” Here’s another, from Imbibe Magazine, that describes orange wine as “White wine that has been left to get chummy with the grape skins and seeds,” a technique uncommon in the vinification of white wines. Its introduction in New York State, by Red Hook Winery, “kicked off a whole new facet of New York winemaking and inspired other New York producers,” according to the author. And here’s one, from 2009, from our own Jon Bonné, at the S.F. Chronicle, that calls orange wines the “ultimate reactionary drink.” Jon said that 2009 “seems to be their breakout year,” but I don’t think it was. I haven’t come across any orange wines in California, haven’t heard of them, and if there’s any breaking out, it’s failed to come to my attention.

Incidentally, I looked up Josco Gravner (the subject of Cristina’s thesis) in Wine Enthusiast’s database and found a 2008 review by our Italian bureau chief, Monica Larner, of his 2003 Anfora Breg ($120), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. She loved its “deep golden color and intense aromas of caramel, butterscotch, mature apricot and chewy caramel,” and gave it 92 points.

Have you heard of orange wines? Are you a somm who serves them? Know any Cali winemakers who make them? Let me know.

  1. Kind of a confusing post, Steve. Are you saying that you’ve never heard of orange wines before?

  2. You have never heard of orange wine? I’ve never had it, but have heard a lot about it and, if my local wine store carried it, I would love to try it. Antonio Galloni did a video on the subject back in April.

  3. Surprised you haven’t heard of orange wines before, Steve. You ARE pulling our leg, aren’t you??
    Orange wines are not as well defined as I would like. Most of the ones from Georgia and from Friuli (Gravner/Radikon/Movia) and Cornelissen are white (or gris) wines made w/ extended skin contact AND made in an oxidative style, sometimes/oftentimes in large clay amphora, or qvervi as they’re called in Georgia. Because they are made in an oxidative style, they take on a orange/burnished bronze/brown color. So…strictly speaking…orange wines are called such because of their orange color.
    But there is a whole nuther genre of these wines. White (or gris) wines made w/ extended contact…but in a reductive manner. They typically do not have that deep orange/burnished bronze color. But, depending on the length of skin contact, they can have their varietal character obliterated/totally changed. The CowanCllrs Isa L:akeCnty SauvBlanc is probably one of the best examples out there.
    There are plenty of people out there messing around w/ orange wines (made in an oxidative manner) and white/gris wines made w/ extended skin contact. AbeSchoener’s ScholiumProject is one of the most well known. Others include Donkey&Goat, CowanCllrs, ForlornHope, Rhyme, ArbeGarbe, WindGap.
    It’s an interesting genre and one I hope is explored more. It’s sometimes a bit weird to be tasting a white wine that is very phenolic in character. Sometimes downright unpleasant. Many of the Friulian orange wines are made from RibollaGialla, the 2’nd most tannic white grape (after Furmint), and can be painfully tannic. But to enjoy them, you certainly must think outside the box…has certain Monktown attourneys have admonished us to do.

  4. Radikon

  5. Steve, Fasi Estate Winery offers an enticingly complex 2010 barrel fermented orange style wine from four Rhone varieties. They call it Sierra Gold. The fruit source and winery being in eastern Madera County are, alas, without your avowed tasting venue.

  6. Having read this blog, Steve’s ignorance of the category does not surprise me.

  7. I’ve tasted several orange wines. NPA was making one back in 2009. The most recent one I tasted was 2011 Two Shepherds Centime (centime means “penny” or “cent” in French–name chosen due to the orangish color of the wine). Check them out:

  8. Ultrahip would be one way to put the orange wine craze in CA. Another would be “I’ll try anything just for the sake of it”. It does not surprise me that orange wines are (a) the province of wineries that few folk have heard of or (b) that Jon Bonne would embrace them–if only because they are not Chardonnay.

    I attended a tasting of such wines last summer in Napa. Certainly, the folk who were making them were earnest, enthusiastic, truebelievers. But they were certainly not all young and it turns out that some of them, Randall Grahm in particular, are not exactly young.

    What struck me was that the true orange wines were incredibly bitter, as Tom Hill points out, and that most them were befeft of anything that resembled fruit. But, there was a Gravner 1998 served from magnum that somehow transcended its disadvantages and would have been an enjoyable wine with the right kinds of foods.

    What also struck me was the number of people who privately said to me, “some of these wines are going to drive me back to Chardonnay”.

    OK, I get that, and sort of agree. But, since many of the wines were interesting and potentially enjoyable, this is not a category to dismiss outright. Just don’t give up you favorite tipple in search of the next big thing because, breakout year or not, orange wine is, so far, the next small thing.

  9. Bill Smart says:

    Why are people so quick to jump on others for not knowing about something? I’d never heard of orange wines either. Isn’t what makes the world of wine so unique is that we are always learning and always challenged – even if you are a critic, winemaker or even Master of Wine? It’s so easy to just blast away online. Seriously annoying.

  10. Steve — would you like to come taste a variety of skin-fermented white wines (ranging in style from the reductive, non-“orange” skin fermented to more tonally distinct) out of the Forlorn Hope cellar? I’d be happy to fill you in on what I’m doing in this vein, and why. My contact information is available via my website:

    I hope to hear from you soon — Matthew

  11. Patrick Frank says:

    Palmina Tocai Friulano.

  12. I thought orange wines were “made” to cover up mistakes…..but then I am a consumer, what do I know? 🙂

  13. I confirm that Matthew’s Forlorn Hope wines are phenomenal and I wouldn’t want to classify them as “Orange Wine”, but if the style has been coined that way…. I can also attest to Carlotta Wines made by David Grega and he makes a great Marsanne/Roussane blend that sits on skins for 24 hours for hints of bitterness and tannin, doesn’t make it an “Orange wine”. I think you would enjoy these wines Steve. An Orange color wine would certainly turn me off, aesthetically. Checkout some of the good ones mentioned in the comments though and perhaps you will open your mind a little

  14. I made one as an amateur back in 1983 from Seyval blanc. Very warm fermentation on the skins for several days. Haven’t had any commercial ones tho. The wine did hold up well for about 15 years. I have always been an older style or traditional style winemaker. May still have a bottle in the cellar.

  15. Randy Caparoso says:

    I received a note from Ms. Coari a few months ago asking my opinion of “orange wines.” In my (apparent) naivete, I responded by saying that I didn’t know there were wines made from oranges. She wrote back explaining the recent trend towards skin contact white wine fermentations. I wrote back, saying “oh.” In any case, I can’t take any blame (or credit) for her attaining her “Master Sommelier” diploma. She earned (or paid for, I guess) it on her own.

    Aside from anyu possible “somm scam”: as inevitable in my line of work (particularly with Sommelier Journal), I have been trying a number of those wines made here in California; and as with all wines, I’ve liked a few (like Mr. Rorick’s Forlorn Hopes), and not so much others.

    Point being: it’s a very interesting “new” niche; and since I’m a foodie sorta guy, I particularly like the the possible food versatility of white wines with mildly bitter tannin sensations (just one more sensory tool to work with).

    Hence, my two cents: if anything, it’s culinary possibilities that might grow interest — “might” being the operative term. There is enthusiasm among quite literally a handful of sommeliers; but of course, these wines are a long, long ways from becoming an “ultimate reactionary drink.” Let’s not expect too much (or anything at all) too soon…

  16. Steve Seltzer says:

    I have had orange wine once, at a farmhouse restaurant near Palermo, Sicily. It made sense to me, since we were very near the Marsala region. I was having dinner with a group of wine-knowledgeable friends, including an enologist. I recall drinking out of water glasses, and the flavors of this oxidized wine blending perfectly with the home-made sausage, wild asparagus and artichokes.
    Interesting that this ancient style is now the “new” somm’s rage.

  17. Well, I’m not alone in being an ignoramus about orange wines. The great Randy Caparoso didn’t know about them either as recently as a few months ago! And thanks as always to Charlie Olken “the godfather” for always making sense.

  18. Ryan Flinn says:

    As a wine geek, I like them because they’re so different. Pax Mahle makes a nice Trousseau Gris version. If you want to try a few by the glass, head over to Barbacco in SF. They have a category on the iPad wine list with weird whites, where a variety from around the world are included.

  19. Randy Caparoso says:

    I’ll take the “great” moniker even with your tongue pressed firmly in cheek, Steve. I should mention (or give credit) that my first experience with these new fangled skin-contact whites was some three years ago at Kevin Kelley’s The Natural Process Alliance (“The NPA”) at Salinia in Santa Rosa. Then a few weeks later, when I noticed the NPA whites being sold at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, NOPA (somm/mgr. Christopher Deegan always runs a cutting-edge program).

    What I hadn’t heard before was the term “orange” wine. Most Tavel roses, for instance, or orange tinted, but we’ve never called them “orange.” Color is such a state of mind. Makes me think of one of Abe Schoener’s recent Scholium Project Roses, made from Cinsault from 126 year old vines in Lodi: even held up to natural morning light, the wine was a clear, pale white — not a hint of color, pink, orange or otherwise. When asked about it, Schoener said “it’s a rose because that’s the way I made it.” I said it, “okay.” That’s a California winemaker, for you.

  20. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for inviting conversation here. It’s always a good thing to provide space for education and discussion all around.

    For more from the Sommelier perspective, here’s a great link that returns us to the source:

    Levi Dalton helped a range of Italian orange wines take hold in New York City (the phrase was coined back in 2005 or 2006 by David Harvey of London, UK, incidentally). Dalton did fantastic things with the wine programs at two different Italian-focused restaurants in Manhattan, and was brilliant there at building bridges between lesser known wines and consumers with interest through smartly designed wine menus plus well-listening wine stewards. His perspective is well worth reading. He gives a sense in that interview on how to think of orange wines in relation to food as well.

    Earlier this year a reader asked me to give a better sense of what the heck orange wines even were. It lead to a four part series on my blog that starts with an explanation of how they’re made, and why they feel so weird in the mouth. Part 2 considers the origins of the phenomenon–Georgian Kveri; part 3 looks at the Italian orange wines that helped explode interest in the style; part 4 looks at Schoener’s Scholium Project orange wines, mentioned by another of your readers earlier.

    Here’s a link to the first of the series (links to the other three are imbedded there as well):

    As for Matthew Rorick and Forlorn Hope–well worth tasting. Many of his wines aren’t orange at all, of course. But he does make some orange wines, and from interesting grapes few others are working with. I second the recommendation to taste with him!

    Others making orange wines here in Napa/Sonoma region include: Two Shepherds (as mentioned above), Ryme Cellars (in Sonoma), Matthaisson Wines (in Napa), and Arnot-Roberts. Have fun exploring! I love discovering new wines, and hope you enjoy the process.

    As a head’s up, the phenomenon is quite varied as to make them winemakers work with a whole range of different grapes and different methods for making them too, so don’t expect that the first few you taste are representative of all.

    Places to taste some orange wines in SF include Terroir SF, and Arlequin, or with dinner at Acquerello Restaurant–there ask for Gianpaolo.


  21. Steve,

    You really should try Matt’s wines (forlorn hope). Crazy good. His “Nacre” Semillon and Que Saudade were huge hits in my wine shop (many cases sold).

  22. That is the beautiful thing about the wine business, We all can learn something we didn’t know. I imagine Cristina is probably relieved that people are discussing her thesis subject rather than the fact she got a certificate from a non-accredited outfit, which I thought was the subject of the post. 🙂

  23. IMHO, “orange wines” ARE a somm scam. When I was a kid and got my first chemistry set I did all sorts of things that were pointless and awful, just because I could.

    A lot of that going on here. I have had some orange wines from the regions where the technique has been perfected by centuries of experimentation, repetition, and “hey that’s just what the vines do best here” but my reaction was [shrug]. There are objectively better wines to spend my money on.

    If I’m going too play hipster, I’d rather have a liquid nitrogen cocktail.c

  24. Hey Steve!

    wacky workings in wineworld

    I’m heading to the Langhe, where I hope to find some red wines. I just took the express train from white to rose to red and bypassed the yellow,orange and brown wine lines.

    thanks for the shout-out, amigo!

  25. You must be living under a rock or too sheltered a life to have not heard of the “orange” wine thingy, take a white wine ferment on its skins let it oxidize and you have an orange wine some interesting, many horrible, that’s my take and I love the oxidized wines of Jerez. The new trend is a take off of the great wines of Jura or the Vin Jaune, which of course are yellow and made like the wines of Jerez, orange is one step further along. It’s a hipster thing, I find they will drink anything especially if someone else is buying 😉

  26. The Chilean Sommelier Guild offers a Master Sommelier level also it’s not just the Court’s name for their top level.

  27. Hi Steve,

    I know of two in California. David Grega’s Carlotta Cellars does an orange wine, as mentioned above as a Marsanne/Roussane blend. Scholium also does some.

  28. Steve,

    We have been making orange wines here at Carlotta Cellars for the past 5 years. You have unknowingly reviewed a few of them in the past. I would love to sit with you and taste some of our orange wines…cheers!

  29. Marlene Rossman says:

    Steve,like Doug Wilder, I still cannot fathom what the fake somm degree has to do with the orange wine story. They are connected, but only by a tiny thread. Can you elucidate?

  30. My post is lost again, trying 3rd time

    Two Shepherds is committed to pushing the edge a bit and trying new things every year in small lots. If they don’t work, I throw them away. If they do, I expand. In 2011 I did a full ferment to dry on Marsanne & Roussanne, from Russian River, in a year the labs screamed NO SKIN CONTACT. Issue free & without laccase.

    Given the lean year, it was a tad bitter, so I also mixed Grenache Blanc lees in, to round it out. A year later, 6 months in bottle, I think its ‘almost’ ready, but whats my guage point? I don’t know of anyone else who has done this (24 hours is completely different.)

    But I think I am going to release this 13 case (yes 13 :))
    We opened a bottle last weekend, and while there is no doubt it will continue to gain complexity, the bitter & lean-ness is now softened. There is no mistaking it for a white wine though, texturally.

    The response, even without tasting, is quite remarkable, multiple requests to buy a bottle, sight/taste un-seen, just to try. Bravo.

    2011 I also did a full ferment to dry on a small personal lot of Trousseau Gris….orange is debatable since TG is a grey skinned grape, and makes a very bight pink wine.
    Based on that, this year, I did a full barrel, 7 days, dry on skins. (Even though Two Shepherds is supposed to be about Rhones.)

    One could argue its more a rose’ – but I will likely stick to ‘orange’ – the marketeer in my working with the momentum there.

    This year I intend to make a small lot (1/2 barrel likely again) of Grenache Blanc, to see how it comes out. Try, expiriment, wait, release what works, dump what doesn’t. Rinse repeat. I only wish harvest came 2x a year so could experiment more often!

  31. Dear Marlene Rossman, sometimes I like to segue through those threads. The arm bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, that kinda thing.

  32. David Grega, yes, I figured I’ve probably tasted and reviewed “orange wines,” it’s just the terminology that was new to me.

  33. Dear Lee Newby, obviously I’m familiar with oxidized wines and some of them, I love. It was the term “orange wine” I hadn’t heard.

  34. Happy travels Alfonso!

  35. Steve,

    Try Ryme (Ryan and Megan’s) skin fermented Vermintino “his” for a great example of a Sonoma County “orange wine.”

  36. Anthony Correlone says:

    Scary to know that someone like you who is blogging about wine with a “serious” website, doesn’t know about a wine trend that has been “trending” for years now.

    You need to get out more.

  37. Dear Anthony, don’t be afraid for me. I learn new things every day!

  38. I hate when people use wine knowledge to justify superiority. Wine is about learning. A guaranteed lifetime of learning. One will never know it all in regards to wine. People only pretend. Furthermore, wine trends come along that have already had a run and are refreshed by a new name or marketing take on them. I see these orange wines as homage wines to amphorae or early winemaking when many processing techniques were unavailable. Personally, I cringe at the thought of taking amazing fruit and doing this. But hey that is the great thing about wine….a wine exists for everyone’s liking. I live in Marlborough and was at a 100 plus person tasting, mainly winemakers and tasted blind, when an orange wine was served. Someone that had imbibed a bit got up grabbed the microphone and said this wine is shit! A bit much I thought. Interesting though to read the above comments and Steve’s reference to Somms liking the wines. Hmm winemakers versus Somms? The orange wine we tried is made by an expat American who owns Pyramid Valley. The wine spent 5 months on skins, no sulfur, and is a blend of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.

  39. Bah, orange wine is sooooo 2008. The hipster community has moved on. Nowadays, we strictly drink mega-purple.

  40. Steve, I too was new to the *term* but not the *concept* of orange wines, and I have learnt a great deal about them through this thread. For example, I heard on a cooking programme that orange wines were those wines which kept contact with the skin for that orange colour, but somehow thought they were distinct from oxidized wines of Portugal, Eastern Europe, and the eastern Med. So it’s good to learn more about this trend, although I must say that I think it may still be rather a niche market, and many of my wine-savvy friends are not “hip” to orange wines, either. Of course, this likely has to do with cuisine styles and so forth. Anyway, a fine post, and an informative thread.

  41. Not sure I follow this post. Orange wines have been relatively popular for some years now, first gaining traction in Italy and in Slovenia. What do orange wines have to do with fake somm certifications? Just had the Radikon Slatnik Bianco 2009 the other night (e.g., see: with veal and ’twas gorgeous.

  42. Channing Daughters on Long Islands makes several.

  43. Opps, my comment re: oxidized wines was tongue in cheek, I didn’t mean to offend you Mr. Heimoff.

  44. sorry to be late to the orange wine party, but it is harvest after all.

    I have heard a lot of talk about orange wine, especially on blogs, but I have yet to see on for sale at a store or restaurant. I think this says a lot about the “orange wine phenomenon”.

    I know of two wineries here in the Willamette that are currently working on orange wines. Haden Fig, one of my favorite wineries, made an orange pinot gris last year, and it is currently barrel aging. Eyrie vineyards has supposedly been barrel aging an orange pinot gris for four years, and it is slated for release next spring.

    As for all the flack you’ve taken about not knowing about orange wine, I hold the opposite opinion. Admitting you don’t know about something is the best way to learn about it. It’s hard to do, and it’s something I’m trying to get better at. Anyone that would fault you for that is probably not worth listening to.

  45. Dear Gabe, thank you. The idiots who criticize me are looking to score cheap points. I’m not unhappy that “orange wines” didn’t cross my radar before some other people heard about them. In my job, you hear what you hear when you hear it, and then you do your best to understand it and communicate it to other wine lovers. Anyhow it doesn’t sound like this “orange wine” thing is going anywhere.

  46. Steve, classy for calling your readers “idiots.” I do commend you for acknowledging that you didn’t know something. Nothing wrong with that. I wish more people would do the same. I know I don’t know everything about the wine industry.

    I think most of us idiots’ criticism was directed at the fact that you fancy yourself a wine expert, yet seem to insulate yourself from all things non-California. Yes, I know you’re the CA editor for WE. But how can you really know what’s going on in the industry if you neglect most of the wine world?

    Again, I commend you for not being afraid to share your ignorance.

  47. Steve,

    You might be right about orange wine not going anywhere. I am going to reserve judgement. Right now, I think there are literally thousands of people writing about wine, and orange wine gives them something to talk about. So it makes sense that it is so popular among bloggers. But I have not seen any evidence of people actually buying it. I see people drinking gruner veltliner all the time, but I’ve never seen anyone drinking an orange wine. I’m sure winemakers will keep making it, and a few might even make some that tastes good. But if it doesn’t taste good (which I’m not sure of) and if it doesn’t sell (which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t), then it will probably disappear from the American market as soon as sommeliers and bloggers find something new to talk about

  48. Wow. 47 comments. Is that a record, Steve?

    I have to say, though, 47 comments without an entertaining take from Morton is disappointing. Doesn’t this discussion just scream out for him to chime in?

    I’d been hearing some buzz about “orange wines” for a while without knowing to what it really referred and without a lot of inspiration to research due to the obvious “hipster” connection to what little I’d heard. This was an informative post, as were the non-obnoxious comments that actually shared additional info about experiments with orange wines, as opposed to others offering only pretentious critcism.

  49. Mike, I think my record post was about 90 comments, can’t even remember which one it was. As for Morton, I totally agree, it’s always a pleasure to hear from him–even if we don’t know who he really is.

  50. ‘Orange’ wines are traditional in Spain too, though Friuli and Slovenia and Georgia seem to take all the limelight! Here in Spain it’s called “de sobremadre”; (‘madre’ being the skins, and ‘sobre’ meaning “on”). Basically it’s just wine made with white grapes, but as if they were red, ie a certain amount of time of skin contact before pressing off. I export some to the USA, so if any readers are interested to try it, just contact me and I’ll find out where the nearest outlet is. It’s very difficult to find here in Spain too, as it went out of fashion back in the 40’s or 50’s!!!

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