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Flavors: Wine Experiences at the MSU Billings Wine and Food Festival

Miranda Murdock Photography

Once again, the Montana State University Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival raised scholarships for students. This year Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley and Jeremy Leffert of Rabble Wine Company were the featured winemasters. They came into the studio to talk about modern wines, critic ratings and labels as well as touching on their histories and philosophies on wine making. Also, I invited Doug Reed, Regional Sales Manager for Riedel – The Wine Glass Company to talk about how the shape of a wine glass influences the perception and enjoyment of experiencing wine.

I sat down with Doug Reed in the YPR’s conference room to experience a red wine from a paper cup, a standard restaurant wine glass and a Riedel glass designated specifically for Cabernet Sauvignon. Before we began Reed emphasized how the name Riedel was pronounced. “Riedel like ‘needle’ for the last eleven generations and 262 years the company has been in business.”

In the 1950s, ninth generation Klaus Riedel noticed when he drank his favorite wines in glasses of different shapes and sizes he started to notice an inconsistent wine experience. He created the Sommelier Burgundy Grand Cru wine glass. The shape of the glass includes a waistline, streamlining into a smaller diameter towards the middle of the glass and rounds out on the bottom while splaying out at the top.

Credit Stella Fong
Doug Reed of Riedel - The Wine Company holds a Sommelier Burgundy Grand Cru wine glass.

Reed explained, “This glass had a lot to do with also the 1950s tail fins of beautiful Chervolets and Marilyn Monroes as far as its statuesque nature, but probably really it had to do more with wine than that. It is really a different shape and what people normally think of as wine glasses, but again remember it was a wine glass developed not to be pretty, not to be decorative, but to be functional.”

Glasses provide means for drinking beverages. At first, they were functional just for the act of drinking and then they were made decorative. But Riedel added the element of experience. With winemakers putting in tremendous efforts to highlight their grapes in the best light, the glass becomes what Reed terms as the “loud speaker” or “messenger” for the wine.

Riedel’s Burgundy glass was designed according to Reed, “for one very specific wine, one very specific DNA of wine. In this case, pinot noir. It was designed to give the best possible aroma, mouth feel, flavor for pinot noir.”

The Burgundy glass retails around $60 but Reed explained, “The metaphor I always like to use is you can go pay money to see the Mona Lisa and you can either look at it through a little paper towel tube and see just a bit of it or you can look at it in its entirety and all of it grandeur.” This is what Riedel is doing with the different shapes of varietal specific wine glasses. 

To put a glass of wine in perspective Reed explained, “Between the water and alcohol, this comprises 99 percent of what’s in our glass. There’s literally one percent of material that defines what our wine really is.” This means the job of the glass is to magnify the message and decode the flavors and aromas of the wine. 

According to Reed, white wine has two flavor contributors: fermented grape juice and yeast while red wines have an additional two components of oak and tannins. For instance the Riesling glass is narrower and smaller in size.  The glass not only concentrates the nuances but Reed pointed out, “There are a lot of mechanics that happen with your tongue when you are drinking from a very narrow glass.”  The narrow rim forces, “Your having to tilt your head back and when you tilt your head back when you drink from the glass your tongue comes forward automatically.” The tip of the tongue is where the sweet receptors are, and so accentuates the wine.

“To actually be guiding the wine onto the palate, the wine gives appropriate aroma to your nose first,” Reed added. “Flavor is the combination of taste and aroma.” The connection between smell and taste is most obvious when one has a head cold when sinuses are plugged up. To further illustrate the interaction of these two senses, Reed instructs his class to hold their nose while taking a sip of wine. Then he asks the students to release their hold. Suddenly taste amplifies.

With wine, smell and taste are the first senses drinkers think about, but the first line of observation really is sight. With Riedel glasses, the clear glass and thinness allow for viewing the wine more accurately. The thinness also means less barriers between the wine and your palate.

Standard restaurant wine glasses are usually the same shape with thicker glass that holds a blue tint. Reed wondered why chefs and restauranteurs spend money on the finest food and linens while many times not securing the right wine glasses.

Credit Stella Fong
The shape of the glass makes for enhanced wine tasting. From left to right, the glasses are: standard wine, Oaked Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet/Merlot with a plastic cup in the middle.

In our tasting, we sampled red wine from a paper cup, a standard restaurant wine glass and the correct Cabernet Sauvignon glass. The wine smelled and tasted flat in the paper cup, very one-dimensional. Of course I could only observe the color of the wine by looking into the cup. In the standard restaurant glass, the wine appeared darker while the smell opened up a bit showing some hints of fruit, oak and tannins. I tasted some fruit and oak while feeling rough tannins on my palate. But it was in the Riedel Cabernet Sauvignon glass that the wine unlayered into vibrant fruit, nonfruit and oak aromas while showcasing better fruit and oak tastes with smoother tannins.

Though Reed’s goal in his class is for the taster to experience the intensity of the wine, an experienced wine taster would find these glasses better at bringing out the notes and nuances of the wine. But even more important, to honor the last sense, hearing, the clinking of glasses right at the widest part should bring cheer and celebration.

Now having the tool to decipher the personality of wine, it is time to talk to two winemakers who make the beverage to drink in the glass. I brought into the studio, Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley from Walla Walla, Washington and Jeremy Leffert from Rabble Wine Company in Paso Robles, California. Johnson termed their wines as “wines of the wild west” since Napa and Sonoma still dominate the world of wine.

Johnson jokingly said, “wild” because both areas have large diurnal temperature variations between the high and low temperatures occurring on the same day especially during the summer months. Dusted Valley, located in eastern Washington is in the high desert while Rabble Wine Company in central California has marine influences.

Credit Stella Fong
Four wine samples from Rabble Wine Company presented at the Winemaster Symposium for the 2018 Wine and Food Festival.


According to Johnson, Walla Walla has an average rainfall of 8-inches so irrigation is needed. The area receives 300 days of sunshine with temperatures reaching beyond 100 degrees F. during the day and sometimes dropping to 30 degrees at night. Then in the winter, some snow “puts the vines to bed,” he said and maintains the natural acidity of the grapes.

In Paso Robles, Leffert spoke of how the fog cools things down with the heat during the day allowing the grapes to “blossom and build their great characteristics of the wines.” The soils have maritime parentage – limestone and ancient seabed materials. “There’s actually whale bones and clams,” he shared.

Rabble Wine Company started in 2007 with founder Rob Murray, a farmer who “got groups of people together to buy up land and start planting vineyards with the goal of selling grapes to other wineries.” In 2007 Murray hired a winemaker to make wines to help market the grapes and a graphic artist to start the Tooth and Nail brand, the company’s blended wine branch with the first wine, The Possessor, a Cabernet blend.  Then in 2012, “we started to grow brands by market acquisition without a tasting room, so we reversed engineered it.” These days, the winery has a tasting room with a castle façade and modern industrial interior. They have about 1000 acres of planted vineyards, keeping about 15 percent for their own wines.

Rabble Wine Company has four tiers of wines with the Rabble Wines featuring single varietals, Tooth and Nail focusing on blends, Statis highlighting wines from the Santa Maria Valley and then Amor Fati, translating to “the love of one’s fate,” contain their “culty, illusive and beguiling” wines.

Dusted Valley began with Johnson’s wife, Janet, her sister, Cindy and brother-in-law, Corey Braunel quitting corporate jobs to start the winery in 2003. “We started with Dusted Valley that was our more estate driven premium brand, and after a few years, we realized the opportunity for a more accessible price point brand so Boomtown was born.” They started a wine club named Stained Tooth Society. With his father as a dentist, Johnson initiation gift for a new member was a toothbrush.

Dusted Valley also carries three tiers of wines with Boomtown for everyday drinking, Dusted Valley their signature brand and Cult of Ceres with limited production and vineyard designated wines.

On the topic of philosophy of wine making, Johnson admitted to entering wine through fine dining, through drinking a lot of wine. This led to his goal of making wines he wanted to drink. In the beginning Dusted Valley purchased the grapes for the wines they made wine “not really knowing what the terroir is all about. We’ve evolved to more of an estate winery and purchasing fruit from places that fit our wine making style.”

These days Dusted Valley has their own blocks with Johnson admitting to be growers first and then not over manipulating the grapes in the winery. Johnson said, “We make decisions or nondecisions in the winery based on great wine making from great fruit.” Both winemakers realized patience is key in making wine. The process takes a long time to complete and it is the attention to detail and care that leads to good results.

Leffert of Rabble Wine Company said of their grapes from Tolliver Ranch, Mossfire Ranch and Murmur Vineyard, “Part of the wine making journey for me is finding the voice of these individual vineyard blocks and having the luxury of four brands with four different wine styles.”  

In conversation, Leffert brought up the term “modern” in wine making as over the years the style of wines has evolved. “When I started making wine about 12 years ago, ‘modern’ was 16 percent alcohol with 5 grams of residual sugar, 80% new oak.” This is no longer true as consumers are demanding balance in their wines.  Leffert continued of his wines, “I want the wine to be fruit driven and have nuance at the same time.” For Johnson, he believed that there is a “big approachability factor in modern wines. If someone comes into my tasting room and it’s a hard tannic wine, and you tell them you have to wait 20 year to drink it, then I am going to be out of business.”

Leffert shared, “I think the modern consumer is interested in the process and now that the largest group of people, the millennials, the largest group we have ever seen and they have money now, a lot of disposable income, but they want quality.” “And authenticity,” Johnson added.

To stand out, both wineries have incorporated label art to attract consumers. On the bottles of Dusted Valley wines is Ceres, the goddess of grain from the Roman religion. “She is holding a swath of wheat and nothing else,” Johnson described.

With Rabble Wines, Leffert said of their want of consumers, “We have always gone after to be different and the Rabble is just that. We want people to think differently and to drink differently.” On Rabble Wine Company’s rose, The Siren, the label, inspired by the Nurenberg Chronicles features a beautiful sea creature with the shape of a woman with a tail. She lures sailors to destructive rocks with her singing. Another example of label creativity is found in the Tooth and Nail brand, with art inspired by John James Audubon. Two red tail hawks fight over a dead rabbit, which focuses on the struggles we have in our lives according to Leffert.

Whether consumers are attracted to a wine because of a label or through ratings, both winemakers advise trusting one’s own palate. With the right wine glass, we should be able to truly know what wine is good.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.