The Wine Layman: Wine in Plain English
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Monday, February 18, 2013

High Over #Wineopolis: Talking #Wine with Expert, Heidi #Butzine

Hello wine enthusiasts.  For the first time in this blog’s history, you will be receiving the opinions, the know-how, advice and certainly the expertise about the world’s greatest beverage from someone other than myself.

That someone is the Heidi Butzine, California-based wine aficionado and author of a series of west coast wine country travel guides called Wineopolis

Heidi is also a tireless entrepreneur who has also traveled the world and is the program director at the Certified Wine Expert (CWX). She is currently a main mover and shaker inside a huge initiative to help local businesses thrive in order to revitalize the economy of individual communities. 

She also plays the organ at Dodgers and Angels games, is Kobe Bryant's personal wine supplier, and two years ago made her own brand of wine where Tom Hanks personally ordered 30 cases of it for his birthday party.  (NOTE:  This paragraph in its entirety is completely false but in trying to establish my point about Heidi, I think you get it - between you and me, I wonder when she gets any rest).

But don’t let these accomplishments fool you as they are not what define her.  Her happy and positive outlook on life in general seems to be her calling card (Not to mention her love for wine and wanting others to get the pleasure out of enjoying it).  It’s the reason I asked and she agreed to share her experience and expertise with us.

Many thanks to her for taking time from her schedule to enlighten us.

WL:   What was the first wine (type/brand if you can remember) you ever tried?  Did you even like it?  50 cent wines such as Mad Dog 20/20 don’t qualify.

HB:  Sutter Home White Zinfandel. I think I was in my early twenties and I liked sweeter things back then. It was okay but it didn’t make me fall in love with wine. That didn’t come till later when I really started getting exposed to more wines through business dinners and going to Napa.

WL:  Your track record is impressive to say the least.  But at some point you were someone just starting out. What was the event that made you hit the gas pedal and never look back? What keeps your foot on the pedal after all this time?

HB:  Going to Tuscany did it. It changed my whole outlook on wine and how it relates to food and connecting with people. What problem couldn’t be solved over a great meal and a bottle of wine? As soon as I got back home, I went to the Culinary Institute of America to study wine. That’s when I realized that I would be a lifelong student of wine. 

WL:  With the CWX program, how far could up the education ladder could someone go?  Could one actually become a sommelier by completing this program?

HB:  Education is all about what you put into it and what opportunities you seek out or create from it. Some of our students want a foundation so they can get an entry level position in the service industry. Other students are bloggers who want the credibility of having a wine designation. And some of our students already have several wine designations on their resume and teach wine for a living.

Earning a wine designation like ours can definitely help someone become a sommelier but students also need to have job experience. Most sommeliers work their way up to the position and have had years of experience selecting, buying and managing a wine program. Like any degree or education level, you need real world experience to show you can apply what you’ve learned.

WL: I will safely conclude that you are a wine “expert”.  But I also think that being an expert might be seen as being a “snob” by beginners looking to learn more about wine the minute you say something they don’t understand.  With this in mind - have you ever been accused of being a wine snob?

HB: Great question! Of course I’ve been called a wine snob. I’ve also been called a cork dork, wine wonk and a grape geek. I think it comes with the territory but the challenge for those of us who help others learn about wine is to tone it down so people don’t tune out. Sometimes you can’t help yourself and you just “geek out” when you love wine but talking about wine is an opportunity to help people get comfortable with it and take the pressure off.

WL:  Your answer makes me smile.  Why aren't there more wine wonks out there like you?

WL: The Wineopolis, series of wine country guides cover Oregon, Sonoma, Napa, and a lesser known California trail (at least to us eastern folk), Temecula County.  Obviously you’ve been to these places.  Name some other wine countries/regions you’ve been to throughout your life.

HB: Tuscany, Veneto, Campania (Italy), Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf du Pape, Provence (France),
Southeastern New England, Amador County (California), Puget Sound (Washington).

WL:  Give us a list of your favorite wine countries/regions with a brief reason why. (“The wine was awesome” is a valid answer but please elaborate just a little).

Okay without sounding too much like a snob, Tuscany is unbelievably gorgeous. Piedmont as well.  Having locally raised food with local wines is perfection! Give me a Bolognese sauce with cinghiale (wild boar) and a Chianti or Barolo and I’m in heaven. I love the Rutherford area of the Napa Valley. Rich luscious cabernet sauvignon like nowhere else. Some of the most expensive wines and grapes live here and you can tell why they’re so happy. I really love Oregon’s Willamette Valley and of course their Pinot Noir. For having such incredible wine that rivals Burgundy, Oregon and its people are so nice and laid back. Another food lover's paradise.

WL: OK, OK, a pass will be given here.  I admit it was hard not to sound a bit like a snob there - I would have done the same but fear not.  I will translate for the readers.

Tuscany - a region of central Italy's west coast on the Mediterranean Sea.  Chianti is a region within Tuscany that uses Sangiovese grapes to make wine.  I wish to visit here some day.

Wild Boar with Bolognese (meat sauce) - a dish I wish I could try once in my lifetime but haven't had the chance yet.

Barolo  - a commune in northern Italy within the region of Piedmont that produces the Nebbiolo grape to make wine. Some of Italy's most expensive wines come from here.

Heaven: The place you enter once you've had wild boar bolognese with Barolo or Chianti...unless you're a vegetarian of course.

Rutherford - Napa Valley Cabernet - Northern California.  She ain't lyin' about how awesome these Cabernets are or how expensive.  A recent flat fee wine tasting I went to featured some Cabernets from this area...retail price average $75. Every sip worth the price and if you hear that coming from me, that's sayin' somethin'.

Oregon's Willamette Valley:  Well known for their Pinot Noir because the conditions there mirror the conditions of the region of Burgundy in France, another place famous for their Pinot Noir.  And like Heidi said, people are nice and laid back so why not take a trip out to Oregon?

In the words of Willy Wonka - ON WE GO!

WL:  Based on the wine countries you’ve been to which one do you feel would be the best “starter” wine country for someone to visit just looking to enjoy themselves where they wouldn’t feel intimidated?

HB: I think that the smaller wineries or those off the beaten path places are great places to start especially the family-owned wineries. Talking to the people who actually make the wines versus an employee working for some huge wine conglomerate is always such a great learning opportunity without pretense. Find wine regions closer to home and start there. Taking a tour is also a great way to learn and have a good time without just standing all day at tasting bars. The more you can learn about wine, the less intimidated you’ll feel. 

WL:  As I have, I’m sure you’ve come across several people who like to drink wine but haven’t taken those next steps to learn about it because they feel intimidated by it. Give the most common answer you’ve received to the question “Why do you think wine is intimidating?”

HB:  People don’t want to feel embarrassed. Wine is so subjective to people’s tastes, so if someone says they smell lemons in their wine and somebody else doesn’t, then they may feel like they got it “wrong.” They hear all sorts of crazy terms like cat pee or barnyard. They see people doing swirling and slurping rituals and think they have to do it. Some people like to show off or think they have to spend a lot of money on wine which also intimidates folks. 

WL: Now tell me the biggest reason why you personally think wine is intimidating?

HB:  There is so much to learn about wine. It’s like learning seven different languages and taking world history, geology, geography and topography, biology and science lessons all at once – not to mention learning about the sales and economics of the wine business. Wine can be intimidating if you don’t practice and stay on top of your studies.

WL:   How do you usually get people to cross over into the promised land of wine drinking with a purpose?

HB:  I always tell people to try different wines with food. Wine is like a spice for food. Take notes on what you like or don’t like and keep trying new wines.  Ask questions, get recommendations.

WL:  The ritual of “wine tasting” tilting of the glass, the color, the legs, the nose, the aromas, the finish and all that jazz is cool and all but the casual drinker really just wants to cut through all the crap and down the wine. So really, what’s the point of wine tasting?

HB:  If you’re just looking to get buzzed, then wine tasting probably isn’t going to be that interesting. Wine tasting is about learning. Taking the time to savor what you taste and really paying attention to the aromas, taste and mouth feel, builds up your tasting skills and your ability to actually describe what you like or don’t like. This is how you learn to speak the language of wine.

WL:  Say I’m at a restaurant.  I know not that much about wine but I like it and feel like getting a bottle.  The waiter opens it, pours a small amount, I taste it but hate it.  My options are....

HB: Somebody just asked me this question last week. The answer is always the same…send it back and get something you like. Life’s too short to drink bad wine. Obviously, don’t be a jerk and drink half the bottle and then say you didn’t like it. This is where taking the time to taste wine (not just gulp it) and learning to describe to the waiter what you didn’t like comes in handy. Tell them politely that you didn’t care for it. Maybe let them know what other wines you’ve tried before and liked. A good restaurant will work hard to make sure you’re happy with your selection.

WL: Have you ever sent a wine back while at a restaurant? 

HB: I’ve been pretty lucky at restaurants but I have sent wine back to be chilled or requested an ice bucket to chill it myself at the table. There’s nothing worse than red wine that’s served too warm. I have brought a wine back to my local wine shop when I wasn’t happy especially if it’s worth my time to go back.

WL:  People I talk to and come across are always anxious to just drink it.  But I always say let it breathe. Who do you agree with?

HB:  Both! I’m always anxious to just drink it especially when it comes to champagne and sparkling wines. These wines don't really need breathing time.  For bold full-bodied reds, certainly older reds, I definitely try to encourage folks to let the reds open up and breathe. If you're having people over, open up the bottle at least 30 mins before they arrive so the wine's already had time to breathe by the time your guests get there.

WL:  When you let your wine breathe, how long do you let it go for?  Or does it differ from wine to wine?  A step further, do you have any guidelines you’d like to share on letting wine breathe IE based on vintage, country of origin, type of grape?

HB: It really depends on the age of the wine and how long it’s been in that bottle waiting to come out to play. Most whites really don’t need to breathe. Reds that have been aged for a while, say a ten-plus year old bottle of Cabernet Sauvingon, should probably have about 30 minutes to open up. Maybe longer depending on age. I wouldn’t go for more than an hour without serving or drinking it otherwise you’re just being a wine tease. Don’t forget if you’re enjoying it over dinner, then it’s going to open up naturally throughout the course of the meal. Taste it along the way and see if you’re noticing a difference but don’t get too hung up on it.

WL:  What would you tell a white wine drinker who would swear on their life that they would never try red wine or a red wine drinker who would never try white?

HB: This one cracks me up. It’s like saying that you’re never going to wear anything but acid-washed jeans and your fluorescent yellow mesh tee for the rest of your life. I ask them if they still wear the same clothes they did in high school. (Most people usually say no.) Our tastes change all the time. Our sense of smell and taste actually diminish as we get older so how could we possibly think we’ll like the same thing forever. Boring! I suggest that white wine drinkers start off with a rosé from Provence or a lighter red and try it with food. The tannins love food and it changes the taste of the wine dramatically.

Wine Layman Interlude:  " changes the taste of the wine dramatically."  Ya hear that?  That's the sound of a wine expert repeating the sentiment that I can't stress enough. "Oh but red wine is too dry"Oh but red wine tastes like Miller Lite" "Oh but red wine tastes like licking dirt" - no it doesn't!  Food and wine were made for each other. Find yourself a match and converted you will be!

WL:   My personal experience in my earlier days when I knew much less when going to a wine shop, I tried to lean on the salesman for help. Usually, I came away knowing less, with more money spent and horribly average wines.  What advice do you give to someone entering a wine shop so they don’t make the same mistakes I did?

HB:  Sommeliers, servers and people who work in the wine business are usually very knowledgeable but they’re human. They may not always get it right. I remember a clerk at a major wine store raved about a Paso Robles Grenache so I bought it. It was too fruity and over the top for me. It really helps to let them know what styles you like, your price range, ask them what’s tasting good now and what they’re return policy is if you don’t like it.  (NOTE:  Paso Robles is a part of California's Central Coast wine region about an hour and a half north of Santa Barbara)
WL:  If someone said to you “I think the wine point scoring system is a fraud and just a way for wine companies to drive up the price of wines” what would be your response?

HB:  Personally, I don’t pay attention to the scores much at all. Wine is incredibly subjective and I don’t want to be told what I should or shouldn’t like. Here’s the big but…I think that they can be helpful to people who are new to wine or those who just want to pick a wine without thinking too much about it. The tasting notes can actually be quite helpful. And chances are since these systems and their tasting panels have a reputation at stake as much as the wines do, you’re probably not going to get a highly rated wine that’s entirely awful unless something’s just off with that bottle.

WL:  Because I’m a New Yorker I have to ask this.  Seeing as NY is the 4th largest wine producing state in the US, where would you say your experience with tasting and knowledge of New York wines ranks on a scale of 1-10?

HB:  New York is definitely on my list of regions to introduce more people to and learn more about myself.  I’d say I’m probably at a 5. I hope to get out there and explore later this year. Bring it NY!

Well, living only an hour from the Long Island country, I've got my favorites so if you make it out this way let me know so I can lead you in the right direction.

WL:   Everyone has their own palate.  But to you, what separates a good wine from a great wine?  And how big/small is that gap between the two?

HB:  I think that a great wine that continues to change character and evolve throughout an entire meal. You take a bite of something savory, creamy or salty and it gives up something different or you get an entirely new taste that wasn’t there before. It’s kind of ethereal but it’s all about enjoying these fleeting sensory experiences and being in the moment. (Gosh, does that sound too California or what?)

WL: If you added in a "whoa" or "dude" or "ya know" at the end of your answer then yes, definitely CA.  IE ...being in the moment dude, ya know?

WL: I’m a huge fan of game shows.  Here’s where we enter what I call the speed round.  Quick questions, quick answers.  In the words of the immortal Dick Clark:  Here is your first subject:  Go!

Q.The film Sideways – loved it or hated it?
A. Loved it. Love Paul Giamatti.

Q. The film Sideways – improved or ruined the quality of the wine industry?
A. It encouraged wine tourism so how bad could that be.

Q. The best bottle of wine you’ve ever had?
A. 2006 Broadley Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (OR).

Q. The worst?
A. I’ve had a hard time with Carménère from Chile. Just couldn’t hang with. It was like chewing pepper but that could be good with a steak. Maybe I need to try again.

Q. The best wine/food pairing you’ve ever had?
A. Any mushroom dish and Pinot Noir. Earthy loves earthy.

Q. The worst?
A. Certain chocolates with highly tannic red wine.

Q. Have you ever drank a wine so bad that it made you gag?
A. Nah. That’s why you spit.

Q. What was the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine?
A $200.

Q. Your favorite type of music to listen to while drinking wine?
A. Jazz vocal standards, Frank (Sinatra), Tony (Bennett), Deano. (Deano, more famously known as Dean Martin for all you non-Rat Packers out there).

Q.  Were you underage or of legal age when you took your first sip of wine?
A.  When I was about 14, I had a small amount of wine with family dinner for some special occasion. Felt like a grown up but didn’t get what the fuss was about back then.

Q.  The most famous person you’ve ever had a glass of wine with or within 100 feet of?
A.  Pamela Anderson at Ivy by the Shore. It was hilarious to see how all the guys at my table were trying so hard not to stare at her.

End of line for the speed round.

WL:  When I used to moonlight as a wine consultant and tried to sell wine I called this blog The Wine Layman: Wine in Plain English, Recipes and Shameless Plugs.  I’m no longer a consultant and the blog name has been simplified. HOWEVER, since Heidi Butzine the fun-loving entrepreneur and wine afficianado has taken time out of her schedule to help me by doing this interview, I’d like to give her an opportunity to shamelessly plug or announce anything she wants things to promote her stuff – throw in links, descriptions, whatever.

You’re on!

HB:  Thanks Jason. I think that learning about wine doesn’t have to be intimidating. It should be fun. I believe that the more you learn about something, the better you can appreciate it and wine is a great passion to have. For anyone who wants to come on over and become a wine geek, check out

WL:  And with that, I'd like to thank 100x the incomparable Heidi Butzine, the reformed Sutter Home-drinking, jazz standard-loving, Tuscany-visiting, wine-educating, travel-guide writing, extremely humble wine wonk for  spreading her wine wisdom among us.

Learn even more about Heidi Butzine, Wineopolis and how she's helped a slew of communities get back on the road to success through connecting local residents to locally owned businesses through her website at

In the words of Sean Connery's immortal character Jimmy Malone from the film The Untouchables,  
"Here ended the lesson."


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