What’s it like to work at the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine and Sotheby’s fine wine auction house? How can you distinguish real wine from fakes? What’s the secret to putting together the perfect wine flight?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m interviewing Aleks Zecevic, wine writer and host of the Vintners podcast.
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- What is Vouvray, France, famous for in the world of wine?
- What was it like to taste the “Victory Vintage” at François Pinon with the winemaker who made the wine in 1945?
- How do Martin and Anna Arndorfer seamlessly integrate family and winemaking at their estate in Austria?
- How did Aleks realize he wanted to be a wine writer?
- What’s the secret to putting together the perfect wine flight?
- What’s it like to work at the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine?
- What does it take to go from tasting coordinator to a reviewer at Wine Spectator?
- How did Aleks hone his wine-tasting skills before he became a reviewer?
- Which aspects of the vineyards make Premier Cru different from Grand Cru?
- What was the reaction from the wine industry once Aleks was the lead reviewer for several wine regions?
- Why did Aleks leave Wine Spectator to become a fine wine specialist at Sotheby’s?
- What are some of the markers that distinguish real wine from fakes?
- What did Aleks look for when examining high-end wine collections as a fine wine inspector?
- How high do auction sales go for rare wines from wineries like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti?
- Why do regulatory bodies create region-specific wine rules through wine-of-origin laws?
- Why don’t some newer wines qualify to get their designation of origin?
- How do these wine-of-origin laws put some high-quality producers at a disadvantage?
- I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at Alek’s wine dream jobs with the Wine Spectator magazine and Sotheby’s fine wine auction.
- He had some helpful tips on distinguishing real wine from fakes.
- I agree with his tips on putting together flights of wine, from lightest to heaviest.
- I thought it was interesting that Grand Cru vineyards don’t have a lot of topsoil and thus the berries have more concentration and the wine has more complexity.
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Grand Cru vineyards don’t have a lot of topsoil and thus the berries have more concentration and the wine has more complexity. - Aleks Zecevic Click to tweet
South Africa is one of the most beautiful wine countries I’ve ever visited. - Aleks Zecevic Click to tweet
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti does not like their wines being auctioned. - Aleks Zecevic Click to tweet
If you took the same grapes from the same vineyard and made them in two different cellars, the wine would taste different. - Aleks Zecevic Click to tweet
About Aleks Zecevic
Aleksandar Zecevic, or Aleks, hails from Belgrade, Serbia. He grew up around a family table where love for wine was nurtured. After relocating to New York City for college, Aleks worked in various facets of the wine industry. These experiences cultivated a greater appreciation, and he furthered his passion by taking WSET courses and landed a job at Wine Spectator. After a training at the magazine and pursuing professional studies in journalism at New York University, Aleks became one of the lead tasters at the magazine. He then became a fine wine specialist at the renowned auction house, Sotheby’s. Today, Aleks specializes in reviewing Austrian wines for Wine Enthusiast and is an avid supporter of eco-friendly agriculture. He is also part of the newly founded Vintners platform, where he creates content and hosts a podcast.
- Connect with Aleks Zecevic
- Sour Grapes Documentary
- Diary of a Book Launch: An Insider Peek from Idea to Publication
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- Unreserved Wine Talk | Episode 27: Gripping Wine Stories with San Francisco Chronicle Wine Columnist Esther Mobley
- My new class The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner And How To Fix Them Forever
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- You’ll find my books here, including Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines and Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.
- The new audio edition of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass is now available on Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and other country-specific Amazon sites; iTunes.ca, iTunes.com and other country-specific iTunes sites; Audible.ca and Audible.com.
Aleks Zecevic 0:00
The flights are about 20 wines. So you go from lightest to heaviest.
That’s a good tip for regular tasters to drink up in terms of the sensory impact. Otherwise if you do the reverse the wines will suffer by comparison the taste would be
Aleks Zecevic 0:16
Exactly and then you also work with the tasters. So they have their own preferences. If you’re tasting wines from the euro, the red wines are so much lighter than the whites. You normally start with the red wines not the whites, the whites are really what they do. And that was basically my job for two years.
Natalie MacLean 0:40
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Oh, that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 205. What’s it like to work at the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine and Sotheby’s fine wine auction house? How can you distinguish real wine from the fakes? And what’s the secret to putting together the perfect wine flight.
Natalie MacLean 1:43
You’ll get those tips and stories in my chat with Aleks Zecevic who hosts The Vintners podcast. Now on a personal note, before we dive into the show with the continuing story of publishing my new wine memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation and Drinking too Much. The last legal issue I’ll share with you for now is the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism, since this also plays a part in my book. So copyright infringement happens when you use somebody else’s work and label it as such but you don’t ask permission to use it. So for example, posting a chapter of a book on your website and attributing it to the author. Whereas plagiarism is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. For instance, posting that chapter on your website and then pretending you wrote it. Neither of these examples are from my memoir by the way. You’ll have to read it to find out what actually happened. So the interesting twist on copyright law in both Canada and the US is that it allows for the use of copyrighted material without asking for permission if it falls under certain categories. And those categories are criticism, review, commentary, or education. There are about four or five others. So for example if you’re writing a book review, you can quote short passages from a book as examples of what you are critiquing. Most people confuse copyright and plagiarism and very few understand the exemptions under copyright, which is one of several reasons why my dumpster fire in 2012 blew up so quickly on social media. Now we’ll share a review from a beta reader Steven Lane. He lives in London, England, and he is also the author of Dragon Vine, “Natalie has crafted her experience into what could pass for an unputdownable thriller. It’s all the more jarring because it’s based in fact. I love that tension and fast paced writing. The flow of her writing is superb, easy to read without unnecessary detours and distractions. It would be easy for an author to be self indulgent when writing about something so raw and emotional, but she definitely avoids this. The story is supremely relatable, her vulnerability and emotion pours off the page. We fall fallen in and out of love at some point with our work and with others. And while the details differ, the feelings are shared human experiences. The witch references throughout and connections she makes to her own state of mind and emotion are powerful. The title is thoroughly appropriate. There’s a good balance of humour and self deprecation. I revelled in the tone of each chapter, some more sombre than others which kept the overall book approachable without getting too melancholy despite the tough experiences she chronicles. And what a heartwarming ending. Having been in the food and beverage side of the hospitality business for decades, I can tell you this book strongly resonated with me, as I’m sure it will with many others. A gut check of our own relationship with alcohol is always beneficial. Though often overlooked, as wine consumption has become so normalized particularly within the wine industry, Natalie’s heartfelt recounting of her own personal journey made me reflect on all the slights and challenges the women in my life have probably endured and continue to endure. Any man who has a daughter, sister. or mother should read this book. Women with a little witch and fire inside them will enjoy it too. I just love those last two lines. Five stars”. Thank you, Steve. I’ve posted a link to a blog post called Diary of a Book Launch in the show notes at NatalieMaclean.com/205. This is where I share more behind the scenes stories about the journey of taking this memoir from idea to publication. If you want a more intimate insider seat beside me on the journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at the manuscript. Email me at [email protected]. Okay on the show.
Natalie MacLean 6:02
Aleks was born in Belgrade, Serbia, and emigrated to the US for his last year of high school. And after completing studies in marketing and philosophy at St. Francis College in New York City as well as WSET courses, he worked at the Wine Spectator magazine becoming one of the lead tasters there. His next job was just as prestigious. He joined the renowned auction house Sotheby’s as a fine wine specialist. Currently, he reviews Austrian wines for The Wine Business magazine. And he’s part of a newly founded Vintners’ Platform, which we’re going to hear more about. And he creates content and hosts the Vintners podcast. So, so glad to have you with us here. Aleks, thanks for joining me.
Aleks Zecevic 6:43
Thank you for having me.
All right, cool. So let’s start with some of the personal stories that you’ve collected along the way from your travels in the world of wine. I’m particularly interested in when when you visited François Pinon in Vouvray, France. Tell us first where Vouvray is for those who are not familiar and what it’s famous for.
Aleks Zecevic 7:03
Sure. So I was covering Loire Valley at Wine Spectator and my first visit I wanted to kind of like go all over the region. It’s a huge region. Spans from Nantes in the West all the way on the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to middle of France, so kinda imagine like 100 kilometres south of Paris. Wow. It’s a really huge region. So I just wanted to go everywhere. Vouvray is somewhat in the middle. It’s famous for wines made out of Chenin Blanc. Historically, a lot of sweets or off dry wines were made there. And in the last years, we’re seeing more and more dry wines. It is famous for its limestone soils, but it’s a little more complex than that. You can just like say it’s all limestone there. There are some nuances there, of course, and the vintners there are a lot of them are really growers and farmers and they like to express every single plot. The wines are kind of like broad. They have high acidity. They’re usually really generous with fruit, but are also very good at expressing that minerality and the soil in which they grow. So visiting Vouvray I wanted to visit you know because one of the varieties that I really liked you know how I got into the 1998 Vouvray, and it was it was spectacular. I was actually blinded on it. And I got that it was vivid, right?
What do you say blinded? What do you mean blind taste it?
Aleks Zecevic 8:31
Yes, exactly. So we were having dinner at a restaurant in New York which doesn’t exist anymore. And I’ve taken a new form called Chambers. But on Mondays they did like industry nights, so everybody could bring their own bottle free of charge with some wine people and a friend of mine brought a bottle of this and served it to all of us blind and I guess correctly, which I’m actually not as good at this game. So I’m very proud of this.
Anyway, you guessed it correctly. Wow. That’s amazing, though. Like you’re skipping over it a little bit it in all modesty, but it is hard to guess. And so what were they expecting you to guess the grape or the region? Or how specific?
Aleks Zecevic 9:11
Yeah, it was completely blind. So I didn’t know anything. And you know I tasted it and I thought to myself is this Riesling? And it wasn’t Riesling because the acidity wasn’t just as high. Okay, I realized that wine had a little bit of age. Riesling also shows petrol notes with age. The older it gets the more of that like petrol, paraffin, you get. So I was thinking this is not really Riesling because it didn’t really show these notes, but it had the fruit it had the acidity, and it had the minerality which really comes out after a decade or two of ageing. So I took a while guess, kind of an educated guess. And it was correct. I didn’t guess the year correctly, but I said mid 90s which was almost there. So I guessed.
That’s amazing. Have you got a medal or something for that or at least another
Aleks Zecevic 10:04
This was very casual. So I just managed to impress my friends. That’s important. Anyway, back to the story it was friends up you know on Vouvray and I wanted to visit the winery, and I knew that the winery had a lot of history. The growers first and foremost, not like a huge corporation or anything. Really a family around winery and I was greeted by the son, Manuel, who’s like now running the winery. And you know he showed me around the vineyards. He showed me the cellar of all the tours go. And then we did the tasting. And he prepared a 1945, who’ve read mu, which is sweet. And I was very, very grateful. But I also wanted to know more about the wine. And I was asking him how was the vintage because honestly I really don’t know much about you know vintages in the 40s and around World War Two and all that. And obviously it was very interesting. 1945 being the year that World War Two ended. And we know that you know France was really affected by the war. So I wanted to know more. And he said, well old on one second. My grandfather who actually harvested the grapes is still alive and I would love for him to join. He doesn’t speak English, but I can translate. So he brought the grandfather who I am not 100% sure but I think he was about 97 at the time, and I’m not sure if he’s still alive. But the man was like still very sharp. And they started talking in French and translating to me in English. And he was saying that it was a great vintage for botrytis. So for the noble rot, which develops the grapes, and they produce the sweet wines out of it. And they called it victory vintage because obviously the war was ending. And it was great because, you know, in previous years they had to give some of their wines to the Germans, whatever they were producing. It was kind of like hard times. So this was really a happy year for him. It was a good vintage for the wine. And the wine just tasted absolutely unbelievable. It was incredibly fresh for a wine. So this was back in 2018. So if I do quick math, that’s, I don’t know, 70 something years.
Natalie MacLean 12:13
That is incredible. And it still tasted fresh.
Aleks Zecevic 12:16
It was very fresh. And I mean, obviously was showing some tertiary notes. But the acidity was still there. And it still had some of those primary fruits, which was just incredible to me.
Oh, what a story. That’s great. And to meet the man who made the 1945 victory vintage. Well, good year for wine. Great year for France and its allies. That was indeed the end of the war. I love that story, Aleks. Thhat’s really great. Now you have another family related story about visiting Martin and Anna Arndofer in Austria. So again, give us a little bit of context before you tell the story. What are they famous for?
Aleks Zecevic 12:53
So Martin’s family has been making wine and Campanile for quite a while. And his parents you know they’re making kind of like conventional wines, more price driven historically, just not super expensive wines. Martin and Anna, they’re a couple obviously now husband and wife and Martin did a lot of internships. Obviously they both did. But he did an internship at a winery in Italy where the producer the grower was working without synthetic sprays, without adding anything into the wines without filtering or fining the wines and just maybe adding a small dose of sulphur. And to some of the Cabs, he was not adding sulphur at all. And Martin was like well that’s very dangerous while you’re doing all this hard work in the vineyard and you’re not adding sulphur, you’re not protecting the wine. And this Italian guy said, well you’ll see the wine doesn’t really need it. I added when it doesn’t need it. And this was kind of like a pivotal point for Martin to realize that he can make wines like this, especially in his region because of the naturally higher acidity in the that you get in the grapes and the lower pH which helps inhibit bacterial growth and just prevents floods naturally. So him and Anna started working on this project. And in early like I would say 2010 I think they really like when full throttle making natural wines. So today they’re one of the leaders. I actually just recently wrote an article because I visited him in Lower Austria, and I think they’re one of the leaders of the natural wine movement in that part of the country. And I really liked him. They’re really fun couple to hang out with. And also I like their personality. They’re very relaxed. A lot of wineries when you go visit them, I feel like they have like a structure of how they show you things. Whereas with Martin and Anna, it’s always a little more relaxed and you’re doing you know you can ask them to do whatever you really want to see. So my first visit back in 2017 we were doing just this and we’re just sitting in their tasting room pacing and talking about all sorts of things and and it was kind of babysitting their cousins, and also their own children. But at some point, all the children just walked into the tasting room with white bedsheets over their heads. And they were pretending there were ghosts, and they were trying to scare us. So cute. So I started laughing. And Martin realized that I was not fazed by this at all that. I kind of thought he was cute. So he started playing with them. And then I started playing with them. So you know after you know we were all pretending we were in this game of ghosts and being scared or whatever.
That’s so great. And then he was out harvesting at one point. He was on a forklift. You mentioned just the integration of the family is so amazing here. What was he doing on the forklift?
Aleks Zecevic 15:46
It’s really cool. So at some point a little bit later, somebody came to pick up a pallet of wine that they were sending. I don’t remember exactly where. And he said, on hold on one second. So Anna just left the baby with us. The baby was sitting with us in the tasting room. He grabbed the baby and he went on to the forklift. He was driving the forklift with one hand, holding the baby in the other hand, just smiling. I actually have a video of this. It’s one of my favourite memories.
Natalie MacLean 16:14
Great talking about multitasking parenting. Holy smokes. Yeah, exactly. I love it. Don’t drop the baby or the wine.
Aleks Zecevic 16:22
Natalie MacLean 16:24
So what was the moment you realized you wanted to be a writer Aleks.
Aleks Zecevic 16:28
So I’ve always liked writing. But Serbian being my first language, I always felt more comfortable writing in Serbian. And I was writing in high school. When I moved here for college, I was writing some poetry and I started writing poetry in English, just for fun just for me. And I started working in Wine Spectator. It was kind of like I was working in wine, my brother used to own a wine shop. That’s how I got into it. And then I worked at several different wine shops after this several different wine bars. And I really wanted to work in wine. But I didn’t really enjoy the late hours of retail and hospitality industry. You know the wine bar like sometimes I would finish at two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. And I just never really had time to see my friends. So if my friends want to hang out, they would have to come to the bar where I’m working. So it’s not really fun experience, in my opinion. So I started with looking for a job where I can still work in wine, but I have “normal hours” nine to five working in an office.
How did you get that job? Hang on. The Wine Spectator is one of America’s, the world’s most prestigious wine magazines. How did you land that job?
Aleks Zecevic 17:43
So really, it’s a very humble response. But it’s reality. I signed up for this like newsletter, basically. Nicholas Palazzi, who is famous spirits importer in New York, was sending out these blasts emails for you know kind of industry emails with all the tastings or job opportunities in the industry. And this is back in 2012, 2013. So we didn’t have all these websites where you can just go now and like find all these jobs. It was either somebody recommends you or you go door to door or this email that I was receiving. And I got an email one day that Wine Spectator and Wine and Spirits were hiring. And I thought to myself oh it’s a magazine. That sounds cool. So let me apply you know and there were very entry level positions for both. However, Wine and Spirits was more geared towards writing whereas Wine Spectator was more geared towards tasting wine. I applied for both. Wine and Spirits didn’t work out. I didn’t have enough experience being an editor at the time. And but the Wine Spectator hired me. Bruce Sanderson, who was tasting director at the time at Bicycle Theatre, who also later became one of my mentors. We connect and hired me. And yeah that was back in 2013. It sounds very humble. I just started working as an assistant tasting coordinator. And what did you do? So I was basically checking in wines that were coming in. So at that time, when data was covering about 20,000 wines a year, and majority of them were reviewed in their New York office. So Wine Spectator has office in Napa and has an office in New York. So there’s a whole team behind checking in wines and setting up tastings because all the tastings are conducted blind. So the reviewer does not know the producer or the price of the wine. So somebody needs to set up the tasting. And it sounds kind of simple, but there’s a little bit of skill that needs to be involved. You need to know the wines, you need to know the producers, you need to know the region in order to put the wines in correct order. Usually the flights are about 20 wines. So you know it’s kind of like a game. You go from lightest to heaviest or whatever depending on the flight.
That’s a good tip for regular tasters to mere mortals. You drink up in terms of the sensory impact otherwise if you do the reverse some wines will suffer by comparison. They’ll taste wimpy or whatever.
Aleks Zecevic 20:04
Exactly. And then you also work with the tasters. So they have their own preferences. Some of them like, for example, if you’re tasting wines from the euro, even when you go visit the producers in the Euro, because the red wines are so much lighter than the whites, you normally start with the red wines into JIRA, not that the whites, the whites are really what they do. So, you know, you kind of would have to work with the testers a little bit as well. And yeah, that was basically my job for two years.
Oh, wow. And were you working with Esther Mobley at that point, who is now the columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle?
Aleks Zecevic 20:37
Yes. So when I started, Esther was executive editors’ assistant and Wine Spectator’s executive editor at the time was Thomas Matthews. And she worked closely with him. And then she got promoted a little bit after I joined to be one of the assistant editors, I believe. And then she landed that amazing job at San Francisco Chronicle.
Yeah, she’s been doing so well. They’re all they smoked,
Aleks Zecevic 21:03
Because I believe Jon Bonné was leaving the position at the time and she replaced him. I’m pretty sure I can tell you exactly. But yeah, she left. And I think she built a great career after that. I mean, she became really famous. And Esther was always a person who really loved wine. We went to a couple of dinners together for work. I love talking to her about wine. You could tell that she wasn’t just there for writing where a lot of editors at Wine Spectator are first and foremost writers and wine came as a second thing, whereas Esther was definitely a writer, but also really kind of like living and breathing wine as well.
Oh, that is interesting. And so then how did you transition from being the tasting coordinator to being a lead taster yourself at the Wine Spectator?
Aleks Zecevic 21:47
So one of the interesting things with Wine Spectator is that the company tries to push their youth up, right.
So promote from within?
Aleks Zecevic 21:58
Exactly. And some senior editors were leaving, some spots were opening for reviewers. So they organize this tasting basically like a test for anybody who wanted to become a reviewer. And I think about 10 of us took this test. The test consisted of you know a little bit of theory, but a lot of tasting. So we would score the wines that were already reviewed by Wine Spectator viewers and try to write a tasting note, describe the wines, give them a score because Wine Spectator reviews 100 point scale. And I passed this test and several months later they asked me if I would like to start training. Then after you pass this test and you start training, it’s a two year apprenticeship programmes. So basically, you’re tasting for one year. You’re tasting with all of the reviewers at the magazine. Well, in New York office, you’d sit down once a week or twice a week with one of the tasters. You taste the whole flight with them.
How many would that be? How many wines would be in our flight?
Aleks Zecevic 23:00
So it depends on the taster. I would say anywhere between 18 and 30 wines, okay. You know it also depends on the tasting. So if you’re tasting Barolo, it’s probably going to be lower number of wines. And if you’re tasting sincera, for example,
Sure. Harder on the palate with all those tannins in the Barolo.
Aleks Zecevic 23:17
Exactly the tannins, the acidity, especially because everything that you review is pretty young, it’s just released or not even released to the market yet. So the wines are you know not 100% ready yet. Yeah. So yeah so you know your taste with each editor. And then after one year, they basically see what your strengths are ,what you like, and they kind of assigned a country or region that you should cover.
Wow, it sounds like a law firm where you know the junior associates are promoted to a specialty or something. It sounds very organized, but also intimidating. Were you intimidated? Like, how did you feel going through this whole process?
Aleks Zecevic 23:56
Well, it felt very humbled and honoured to be a part of this programme. So honestly I was kind of on a high. So I never felt intimidated. And I think what really helped is I had a great relationship as I mentioned with Bruce Anderson who reviews wines of Piedmont, Burgundy, Tuscany, and so on. And even before I started this programme with them, I would stay after – this is one of the great perks of Wine Spectator – you can stay after the end of your work day and taste all the wines that were reviewed that day. Wow. So I was tasting my first two years probably I don’t know about maybe 200 wines a week or something like this. That’s amazing. Or maybe 100 wines. I don’t know exactly. It doesn’t matter. But sure, but lots of wine. A lot of times Bruce would stay there and taste late and because he was tasting regions that I really loved. He also was covering Germany before me. He started I think the Germany at Wine Spectator. So we had a very similar taste in wine. So we clicked on that and I would stay and wait for him to finish his day because I would really like to taste Grand Cru Burgundy’s or some of those so I’d
Unknown Speaker 25:06
like for that to stay at the office.
Aleks Zecevic 25:10
Exactly. So I didn’t mind waiting sometimes until you know 6:30 7pm. Everybody else laughed, and I would sit there. And I think Bruce liked that and appreciated my passion. So he would really take the time after the tasting when he’s bagging the wines. I would basically taste all the wines with him. Bruce used to study geography. So he’s really into maps, and geology and all that. So he would pull out the maps show me different soils in the vineyards. Why is this vineyard better than the other in Burgundy? For example, why is this Grand Cru? Why is this Premier Cru even though they’re right next to each other, and so on, and it was a great learning experience.
So that difference between Premier and Grand Cru, were there certain things that you noticed when you were looking at those soils, like, what did differentiate the two?
Aleks Zecevic 25:54
So it’s. The Grand Cru vineyards normally come from poor soils so they don’t have a lot of topsoil. The vines are suffering a little more. And the berries that grow on these vines have little more concentration.
They’re tiny or they have to struggle to survive, which makes better wine perversely.
Aleks Zecevic 26:12
Exactly. I mean, that’s the idea. So the wines just have more complexity. And you know, I mean these vineyards were designated hundreds of years ago by monks in Burgundy. So this is something that we’ve known for a while. It’s nothing new. So yeah, I was never really intimidated by this process of tasting and reviewing wines. And after a year of my training, because I showed a lot of interest in German wines, one of the wine shops where I worked had a huge German wine collection, also Austrian wine selection. And so I really knew a lot. He was very comfortable tasting German wines and Austrian wines. And at that time, Kim Marcus, who fortunately passed away earlier this year, he was a reviewer for Germany and Austria at the time, and he decided to move back to California where he was born. So he moved to the Napa office. And as he was leaving, he suggested that I take over his regions. So it was a great honour and I’m so thankful to him for it. And basically, for the next year, I was just tasting German and Austrian wines with Bruce who used to review them before Kim. So we were tasting them side by side. At first, all the notes were published under Bruce’s name. And then gradually I started taking over. And I believe in 2017 I fully took over Germany and Austria. Oh, my goodness. And then a year later, James Molesworth became the reviewer for wines of Napa. And you know he had a full plate of all the wines because he was already tasting Bordeaux and Rhone, and he was also tasting Loire and South Africa. So he wanted to kind of pass Loire and South Africa to somebody else. And they gave these regions to me. And I’m super grateful for the opportunity that I had. I loved the wines of the Loire. And South Africa I kind of learned to love and I went to visit the country. And it’s one of the most beautiful white countries that I’ve ever visited.
So isn’t it. Especially the Stellenbosch wine region? But this is quite a meteoric rise, like, would you get like once people, winemakers especially realized you’re the lead taster for these regions? Would you get lots of requests and emails and things? Yes. What was the reaction from the wine industry?
Aleks Zecevic 28:24
Well, so with the German producers and Austrian producers they already kind of knew me because I was going to a lot of events and kind of like showing my face. So and I think how you know Kim and Bruce how they presented me to the people they knew they were saying that I have a lot of passion for these wines. So yes, I was getting a lot of requests. And you know I visited Germany I think five times. I went to Austria probably also four or five times for wine. So that was good Loire and South Africa was a slightly more difficult to get the contacts. But I think once I started meeting people, it also developed and it was great. I really enjoyed all my regions and Wine Spectator.
Wow. Great. And then you topped it off with going to Sotheby’s which you know, along with Christie’s, they’re the two big wine auction houses in the world. Why did you leave Wine Spectator and go to Sotheby’s?
Aleks Zecevic 29:19
So the Spectator leave was kinda like bittersweet. I was there for seven and a half years, and I was just kind of like ready for the next challenge. There were a lot of changes happening in Wine Spectator. And I kind of always wanted you know working in Wine Spectator for seven years. I was tasting a lot of wines, but most of these wines were young. And I was tasting wines that were kind of like ripe or maybe ripe is not the right word, but like you know aged enough to be like matured to be their best in their peak. I would normally taste these if I go visit a winery or if I’m at a dinner, so it was kind of seldom. I felt like one thing that I was missing in my wine career was tasting a lot of older lines. And I thought that you know an auction house would be a great way to taste a lot of older ones without having to spend a lot of money. Exactly. And Sotheby’s actually reached out to me. Before I started working there, they had a position for something that was called like a Content Manager or something like this. However, the company was sold to Patrick Drahi and with all the changes within the company they shut down that position. They didn’t want to hire anybody. So in the end that fell through. And 2020 and the pandemic started you know we weren’t really going into the office that much. And I was kind of like ready for a new challenge. And then one day, I just saw that Sotheby’s was hiring. And I basically applied for this job thinking it was a great opportunity. Snd what was the job? It was a fine wine specialist. Basically, you inspect wine collections from collectors that we would later sell in auction. So you would go either to client cellar and go through the cellar, price the wines that they have to offer. And also when I say inspect you don’t really taste the wines. I mean you do some not all but you basically inspect that, firstly, the wines are not fake. This is a big problem for the high end wine industry. There are a lot of fake wines. I mean I think if you haven’t seen Sour Grapes, it’s a pretty good documentary, and there are a lot of stories like this. So that’s one of the things that we would inspect for. And there are a lot of tricks you know how you can tell that the wine is real, and then also
Natalie MacLean 31:43
Oh share some. What things were you looking for?
Aleks Zecevic 31:46
So for example you know when you are Pétrus, very famous Bordeaux house, there is just like the way that the key for example that St Peter’s holding is printed on the label. It’s very precise. There are these fine lines. There’s the dots. Then for the DRC, for example, Domaine Romanée-Conti. Exactly, Domaine Romanée-Conti. The dots are not dots they’re actually kind of like diamonds. So you can only see that when I actually have a magnifier here. So you see you know you use a microscope. And it’s kind of like a detective work and very, very interesting. I mean, there are many other wineries and lots of different tricks. But these are just some of them. And then another thing that we’re inspecting for is also you know if the wine was stored well. So and you can tell this by the colour. So you know the colour is kind of gone completely probably the wine is not good anymore. The fill level sometimes is too low. You probably don’t want to sell this.
Oxidized or whatever. Something’s happened to it.
Aleks Zecevic 32:45
Exactly so you can see this very easily with a flashlight. If you put the flashlight directly on the bottom of the bottle, you can see the colour and also you know you see everything the sediments. And this is also another way to tell if the wine was faked. Because a lot of fakes are actually done by for example somebody would put on the label it’s 1961 Petrus but they actually just they have the real bottle, but they would fill it up with the current vintage or something or like make a little blend. And obviously, wine from 1961 has a much lighter colour than the wine from the ’90s for example. The colour is not as light you, you know, you should raise a question whether it’s real or not.
Wow, so did you spot any fakes during your time there?
Aleks Zecevic 33:31
Absolutely. Oh, yeah.
Natalie MacLean 33:32
Aleks Zecevic 33:33
I can’t talk much because this is a bit confidential. But there were a couple of collections where you know we went into the cellar, and we were really sad, you know, they are not real.
Oh, my goodness. And what was the most expensive wine that you’ve ever evaluated or tasted?
Aleks Zecevic 33:51
I really am not 100% sure what the most expensive one is. I’ve had, you know, 1961 Haute-Broon is very expensive. I had some from Bordeaux. Yeah, exactly. I had some old Domaine Romanée-Conti, which are very expensive. I think that winery fetches the highest numbers. What does it get at
What does it get at auction, like a Domaine Romanée-Conti I know it depends on the vintage but.
Aleks Zecevic 34:13
Sometimes $20,000 $10,000 per bottle. Yes. Wow. Yeah. I mean one of the reasons why I left Sotheby’s later is because I realized after several months that this is not really something that I appreciate. I think a lot of these wines are treated not as wine as a drink but more as an investment or a commodity. And it’s something that I’m not very happy about as a matter of fact. Domaine Romanée-Conti is not like their wines being auctioned. So a lot of times when you’re auctioning their wines, you will notice this. Most auction houses, because every bottle is numbered, most auction houses would blur or hide the number or just put a generic number there because the winery can trace who they sold the wine to and so on so. They would take a take you off the list.
Oh yeah because they would get off the allocation list because they’re all allocated. You know their sales are done. It’s not like they’re looking to sell more. So I see that if someone’s flipping it to make money, like flipping houses or something, they cut them off. That’s interesting.
Aleks Zecevic 35:17
You know one of the clients that I met basically told me, he says I buy three cases of wine. And he says, I drink one. And then I sell the other two. And I basically drank one case for free and also made some money on top of it.
Self funding seller that way.
Aleks Zecevic 35:33
Exactly. And so I mean sure that’s a great strategy. And I have nothing against these people. But it’s not something that I do. You know I come from a culture where you drink wine as part of dinner. Or it’s kind of like if you look back at wine, what is wine? To me, it’s an agricultural product. Cultural being a very important word here. I think wine is part of culture just like food is. You know I’m not gonna sit here and say like, oh yeah, I don’t enjoy food. And you know, I mean there are a lot of problems in the world where hunger being one of them and so on. But I definitely enjoy foods. I kind of live to eat. A lot of people eat to live.
No, I’m with you. I’m with you. When we plan a vacation for our family, first I book the restaurants then we see if the flights are available.
Aleks Zecevic 36:23
Exactly. You know I’m not saying that I’m better than these collectors or anything, but it’s just I like wine for what it is. And for me, it’s not a commodity, it’s not an investment.
Absolutely. But before we leave Sotheby’s, I’m just wondering. All of these bottles are so old and so on. How were you able to taste them? Because you don’t want to open them. Are you opening one in a case?
Aleks Zecevic 36:44
Yeah, so one of the things you would do is, you know, if the cellar consists mostly, I’ll just you know make something up Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1990 or Haut-Brion ’61, you want to taste one of those wines. You also want to taste wines that were most likely purchased at the time when the cellar was built. Collector’s cellar okay to see you know consistency and temperature, how the wine was preserved, and so on. So, we would always select several bottles that we would taste that would kind of like show if they were stored properly to make sure that you know. If we have a couple of times you know sometimes you don’t know if something’s fake. You just have a feeling that it might be, so you want to taste it just to make sure. So we would select depending on the size of the cellar you know we would select several bottles that we would open and taste. And also a lot of times, we would also select some of the bottles that we would present at dinners before the sale to other collectors to other buyers. So they can also see the condition of the wines that they’ll later bid for.
That’s quite an investment on behalf of the seller who has to obviously forego those bottles for tasting purposes, but I guess that’s due diligence.
Aleks Zecevic 37:56
It’s part of the game.
Cool. All right. So now let’s go on to, we talked about Wine Spectator and Sotheby’s, you’re now writing for the Wine Enthusiast. And you talked about how wine is important as a part of dinner. You’re also very keen on wines of origin. And there’s a big debate in Europe right now about that. Maybe give us a bit of context about. What that is and why it’s important.
Aleks Zecevic 38:2
Wine of origin. You mean by like law?
How they define it and how that matters to wine drinkers, without getting too legal or technical. But, yeah. You’re digging into that issue right now.
Aleks Zecevic 38:36
So I mean a lot of countries and a lot of regions have historically you have famous names or like names that you would put on labels being recognizable by wine drinkers. As this is like for example I don’t know Gevry-Chambertin in Burgundy. It’s a renown appellation. So you know a lot of governments would basically put in rules. What Gevry-Chambertin should taste like. There’s kind of like an idea of what it should express. What kind of wine it should be. And this is the same in Italy in Barolo or in Sancerre in France or in Austria in Kamptal or Wachau. So it’s basically to help the consumer know what’s in the wine like what grapes go in there, what it should taste like and so on.
So these are region specific rules like Gevry-Chambertin is a small little area in Burgundy. And so these wines of origin laws would define like as you said grapes used, yields like how much they can crop or harvest, winemaking methods I guess, things like that.
Aleks Zecevic 39:43
Exactly. So Gevry-Chambertin, for example, can be only Pinot Noir. So if you happen to grow I don’t know Gamay in your vineyards and you want to bottle Gamay from Gevry-Chambertin – I actually don’t know if anybody does it – but if they do, they would not be able to put Gevry-Chambertin on the bottle even though the grapes come from Gevry-Chambertin because the rules say that Gevry-Chambetin is only made out of Pinot Noir. Gotcha. And you have a copy paste of this in many other regions. I think lately some of these rules in certain regions none in all of them. I think Burgundy for example doing a pretty good job has done a pretty good job. But you know with the emergence of natural wine in the last let’s say 15 years, I’m noticing some of the issues where some of the producers who I think are making incredible wines and not just me – these wines are praised by other reviewers by other wine critics you know – they don’t get to put the wine of origin for reasons that this grape is not allowed or this is not allowed, but things like the wine is cloudy and white wine cannot be cloudy This does not get this designation of origin. So for example, Martin and Anna Arndofer who we talked about earlier from Austria. None of their wines, even though they’re in Kamptal and they have like Ereste Lagen which means premier cru in Austria, they have some great vineyards. And they are not allowed to put the name of these vineyards on the label. And it is because some of their wines are cloudy or they make skin contact or you know people call it also orange wine. So they do basically white wines with prolonged skin contact. So this is not allowed in the law in Kamptal. However, when you taste these wines to me they’re very much Kamptal. They really express where they come from. And also, some other conventional producers in the Kamptal agree with this. But the law is such that this is not allowed. So on their bottle it says Wine from Austria and that’s it. Wine from Austria is a very big thing to put on your bottle. It literally means nothing.
Right. And the less specific a wine is on the label, it sends a signal that it’s usually of lower quality. It’s as you get more and more specific you know a region, a sub region, right down to a vineyard, then you think, oh well, they’re being very specific here, the laws are stricter, so it must be a better wine.
Aleks Zecevic 42:08
Exactly. And I think rules are rules. Sure. However, on the other side, there are wineries that make wine. So Martin Arndofer don’t manipulate their wines in any way. They don’t put any enzymes or any additives that are allowed in wine, and there are a lot of them that are allowed and why you’d be surprised. So there’s nothing in that wine except for grapes that come from their vineyards. And then there are producers who use all districts who may be acidify or add I don’t know enzymes, use industrial yeasts that are created. You know, sometimes they use champagne yeasts. So a lot of additives that don’t come from compile, but for whatever reason, somehow they still get this designation of origin this has come down. And to me, logically thinking, why and that is made just from grapes with native yields that come from comfort. So everything in this wine comes from compile to me deserves more to have compile on the label than a wine that uses champagne yeasts or some stabilizers or it’s filtered or you add enzymes, or you add acid, hydrochloric acids or whatnot, you know.
Yeah, so because you can change the flavour and nature of a wine, too, like it has a very powerful impact.
Aleks Zecevic 43:29
Absolutely. I mean, some research has been done that even if you took same grapes from the same vineyard and you made them into different cellars the wine would most likely turn to be different because Ambien piece of that very cellar. Right, so they’re all there. Yeah, exactly.
Interesting. Wow. Yeah. So you’re writing about this.
Aleks Zecevic 43:50
I actually have already written something about this and it will be published in coming months in the Wine Enthusiasts magazine.
iWell, we look forward to reading that. Yes, thank you. Sounds like an interesting issue.
Natalie MacLean 44:06
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Aleks. Here my takeaways. Number one, I enjoyed the behind the scenes look at Aleks’ wine dream jobs with the Wine Spectator magazine and Sotheby’s fine wine auction house. Two, he had some very helpful tips on distinguishing real wine from fakes. Three, I agree with his tips on putting together flights of wine, especially tasting from the lightest to the heaviest. And four, I thought it was interesting that Grand Cru vineyards don’t have a lot of topsoil and therefore the berries or the grapes have more concentration, and the wine has more complexity. In the shownotes, you’ll find my email contact, the full transcript of my conversation with Aleks, links to his podcast and website, and where you can find the live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. You’ll also find a link to my free Ultimate Guide to Food and Wine Pairing. That’s all in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/205. Email me if you have a sip, tip, question, or want to be a beta reader of my new memoir at [email protected]. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Aleks. In the meantime, if you missed Episode 27, go back and take a listen. I chat with San Francisco Chronicle wine columnist Esther Mobley, who also used to work at the Wine Spectator magazine. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Unknown Speaker 45:36
I used to use a voice recorder when I was doing in person interviews. I stopped doing that a couple of years ago. Maybe I’m wrong, but I sensed that people spoke differently when they knew they were being recorded. So I just take notes by hand and then do a lot of follow up if I need to check things. I’m a pretty fast writer. But when you’re driving in the car, usually I’m in the passenger seat. And usually in those cases I’m not writing at all, especially if we’re like on a bumpy vineyard road that I find that it’s those long periods of time when you’re not sitting at a table with wine in front of you kind of intensely tasting. When you have a lot of extra time and you’ve gotten past the big questions. And now you’re just kind of chatting. That’s when people open up and I seek out those moments. It can take a lot longer than just picking up the phone and doing a quick interview and frequently that’s all I can do. I love that car time. I really think that’s when the conversation gets rich.
Natalie MacLean 46:40
If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines, tips and stories we shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps it’s a flight of Pinots.
Natalie MacLean 47:04
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at NatalieMacLean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers.