Sunday, April 24, 2011

Barriques: Finn and Matt bring great wine to Madison’s masses – Part II of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Finn Berge, co-owner of Barriques, (, @barriques on Twitter, at the Monroe Street location (1831 Monroe Street, Madison, WI 53711, 608-284-9463) about their wine business.

A previous post discussed Barriques’ place in the Madison wine market.  This post discusses how Finn’s tastes affect Barriques’ selection of wines.

MWS: You have your comments on nearly every wine out there. How did you develop your wine palate?
Finn: My father and my uncle used to make homemade wines. I helped my uncle a lot making blackberry and dandelion wines and so I developed an interest in how cool it was to make wine. My mother allowed us to have wine at dinner on Friday and Saturday nights when we were in high school.  

The big change was when I moved to Colorado and I worked for a 5-star restaurant and it had a big elaborate wine room and a guy whose sole job was to take care of the wine room – this was before there were formal Sommelier programs in the States.  We had to be involved – at staff meetings each group of employees had to come up and talk about Burgundy, or whatever, so there was this kind of building block.  

Then I moved back to Madison and we opened our first restaurant, the Blue Marlin, and I was the only one who had been a bartender and had any knowledge of wine so the wine list was mine. My first wine list was 18 wines, but I was young, I was a bachelor, and I had time on my hands so if there was a wine event in Milwaukee or Chicago or whatever I was going.  I continually went to all the different events that were accessible.  

Then I started going to France and Spain and Italy and going out and seeing the process.  It builds off from there.  It is a game changer every day. That’s what makes it cool.  Nothing is set in stone – marketing-wise, product-wise.  There are only a few, consistent products out there like the first-growths – Latour and so on -- and the ones that need to follow suit to maintain their status.

MWS: What do you focus on when you visit a small vineyard in Italy and sample their wine?
Finn: It is always a learning process so you are trying to taste regional and individualistic qualities.  

If you are travelling in a river valley north of Florence, that Chianti is going to be markedly different than what you see in Radda or Gaiole south of Florence. They call it a Senesi – you are not going to find that style anywhere else in Tuscany. So now when a distributor comes in and says that I have a Colli Senesi Chianti and I try it, and the winemaker went to the University of California – Davis and it came out as a juicy fruit-bomb, then you have kind of lost the soul of the region and the style.

MWS: Do you try to feature any special types of wine in Barriques Wine of the Month club?
Finn:  I try to keep it interesting.  

Once in a while I will get a comment like “Can’t you do more Shiraz or can’t you do more German Rieslings?” but the Wine of the Month club is for people who want to learn about wine – different styles and different flavors so I would rather not have a mono-varietal profile.  

I don’t even like doing mono-varietal profile tastings.  I find them to be slightly boring, especially like a California Zinfandel tasting.  We break it up by doing it with blue cheese to help break up the palate with the high-alcohol, glycerally fruit-filled wine – it is not fun to sit there and drink wine like that.  They are fun to drink but I would not want to drink them consecutively.

MWS: How easy is it to still find wines that meet your standards of value and quality for the Barriques Wall of 100?
Finn: Especially now.

I have held firm on the $10 price point and forced our distributors to work up the chain to fit that price structure.  They can’t get used to that “it is this wine and only this wine every year”.  They have to do their research.  

In Spain and Italy there are tons and tons of mom-and-pop wineries – there are plenty of new wines and new wineries popping up that offer great value. Spain is on a tremendous growth spurt. California is a tough nut to maintain high quality at a good price, though there are a number of them that have really done a nice job.  Lot of wine out of Lodi – Zinfandel, Syrah.  But finding the $10 Napa Cab – that is not going to happen.  Surprisingly though there are a lot of great $20-$25 Napa Cabs, but they are just not labeled with who actually made it. In Australia, I am told that in 2010 there were 40 million cases of wine that have been produced for which they do not have markets.

MWS: Hidden gems?
Finn:  One of the big sleepers out there right now is inexpensive Bordeaux.  That’s where the steals are. Anything since ’04 or ’05.  

The quality of low-end Bordeaux and how they handle it has completely changed. Their skin contact time, maceration and barrel aging  -- it may not have been new barrels – but they were still emulating what the top wines were doing and you were ending up with this nasty green-pepper super-dry tannic monsters that were a roll of the dice as to whether they were ever going to open up.  

Now they are pulling back on the wood and they are making much more approachable wines so you can get really great Bordeaux for an inexpensive price.  

However, you have to do your research – unfortunately they do not simply label it as Chateau Ausone Class A and Chateau Ausone Class B – Chateau Ausone’s second wine would have a completely different label. [MWS: Helpfully in this case it is called La Chapelle de Ausone].

MWS: Have you made any mistakes?
Finn: Definitely – I have my beliefs.  

Sometimes I buy wines and they are completely self-serving and they are out there.  There is a 98-point Syrah on the shelves right now but I know no one is ever going to buy it. Not because of the price – people just don’t know what it is, Syrah never became the great panacea everyone believed it was going to become, and so unless somebody is in the know it is just going to sit there.  

There is a La Reine des Bois Domaine de la Mordoree Tavel Rose that I think I will buy every year. I still have nearly all the ones I bought last year. I just tried the most recent vintage and it is out of the park.  If you were to have a portfolio of the greatest wines made today, that is one of the greatest wines made today.

MWS:  What is your preference in wine?
Finn:  Brighter, more minerality, more structure, usually more esoteric and not just opulent fruit or the true-blue, big, in-your-face California or Bordeaux style of wine.

MWS: Personal favorites?
Finn: Most of the wines we consume are in the aroma state and not the bouquet state. It is all the qualities of tasting the fruit rather than all the components that come from long-term aging.

The next posting will discuss the role of wine importers and wine distributors

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to read part III. Who knew we had so much knowledge right here in Madison. Thanks MWS.