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Wine fest uncorks big tastes, new tech

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 6:34 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Wine Festival appears to be aging splendidly.

Record attendance is expected for the 10th annual tasting on Thursday at the East and West Lounges at Heinz Field. The VIP Tasting has been sold out, but tickets remain for the Grand Tasting.

Since its debut in 2002, the festival has raised millions for various charities, says wine festival president Ed Harrell. It has also silenced doubters who questioned whether such an event would have legs in a town known for pierogies and Iron City Beer.

"When it first started out, there were a lot of people who probably did think it would not be successful," Harrell says. " I was never one of those."

Harrell says he's pleased with the improved quality of this year's selection of wines, which feature more first-growth Bordeaux vintages. The festival will feature more than 600 wines from California, Chile, France, Italy, Australia, Argentina, Spain and New Zealand.

Think of the festival as a form of speed-dating. Sample a variety of wines offered by Elk's Cove, Chateau Ste. Michelle or some of the other 160 winemakers on hand.

Sip, flirt and perhaps fall in love with a crisp pinot grigio or earthy Australian shiraz. But you can improve your chances by having a general idea of what you're

seeking. Red or white? Domestic or foreign? Acidic or fruity? Riesling or sauvignon blanc?

"It's smart to have a plan before you go in there," says general manager Dale Markham.

"The shotgun method does not work."

"As far as where you start, it's really like being a kid in a candy store," says Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton, one of several restaurants that will be hosting wine dinners Wednesday. "It's really overwhelming. I never get through the entire festival."

That challenge might easier this year, thanks to an iPhone app developed by WinePicks, a local company with offices in Green Tree. Download the free app on www.WinePicks.com or the App Store.

Each winery at the festival will display a placard with a quick response code, an image similar to a bar code. Scan the QR code with your smartphone, and a ratings page automatically pops up, featuring images of the wines in front of you. Rate the wines you've tasted, click "submit" and the information is stored in a virtual journal.

The "intuitive" software uses this data to create a personal profile that can be accessed when shopping for wine.

"The idea was to make this thing a little bit more navigable and a little more personalized," says WinePicks co-founder Mark Zappala.

The wineries at this year's festival include Chateau Montelena. The California winery scored a major upset at the historic "Judgement of Paris" in 1976. A blind taste test in the French capital pitted some of their most celebrated reds and whites against American wines. Chateau Montelena's 1973 chardonnay was named best white, dealing a grievous wound to the French national pride. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 cabernet was named best red.

The David vs. Goliath story was the subject of "Bottle Shock," a 2008 comedy film. It was based on the book "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine," by George M. Taber.

At the festival, Pittsburghers can chat with Brian Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for Chateau Montelena.

"I see so many consumers who come to me and say, 'I don't know if I'm going to ask the right question or not,' " Baker says. "It's almost like you have to talk them down off the ledge of something. It's only wine. It's not nuclear fusion."

Pittsburgh Wine Festival

Features: More than 160 wineries from California, France and New Zealand

When: 5 p.m. Thursday for VIP Tasting, 7 p.m. for Grand Tasting

Admission: $125 for Grand Tasting; $250 VIP Tasting (sold out)

Where: Club Lounges, Heinz Field

Details: www.pittsburghwinefestival.com

Pittsburgh Wine Festival extras

"Wine Festival Eve" has become a tradition in itself. Several area restaurants will host wine dinners. They include the Carlton and Sonoma Grille, both Downtown; Monterey Bay Fish Grotto on Mt. Washington; Donoto's in Fox Chapel; and the University Club in Oakland. The Riedel Glassware Wine Tasting will take place Wednesday in the 13th floor conference room at the Downtown law firm of Reed Smith.

A special private tasting of Chateau Margaux has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday. Only 50 tickets are available and can only be purchased by those with tickets to the VIP Tasting or Grand Tasting. Tickets are $100 and must be purchased at the door on the day of the event on a first-come, first-served basis. The featured speaker is Thomas Do Chi Nam, Chateau Margaux's estate manager. Thomas will be pouring wine and speaking at length of the history of Chateau Margaux. The four featured wines are The Pavillon Blanc 2009 ($150 per bottle ); Pavillon Rouge 2009 ($170 per bottle); Chateau Margaux 2009 ($1,000 per bottle) and Chateau Margaux 1999 ($400 per bottle).

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