Drinking Wine

Fodder for Criticism

“We have to protect what’s best about wine. It is ancient in our civilization, it is a perfect mix of the intellectual and the sensual, it enriches our lives. The beauty of great wine is that it lives inside of you after you’ve had it. It’s a stimulus for memory. What it tasted like, but more importantly, what it made you feel, why you drank it, what you talked about while drinking it, and with whom. Wine is a social event, not fodder for criticism,” Neal Rosenthal.

It’s amazing what we Americans have done to wine and, for the matter, food. Somehow we’ve changed one of life’s quiet pleasures into a sporting competition. In the beautiful quote above, importer extraordinaire Neal Rosenthal not only defines the essence of why wine is so compelling to us, but why his selections are matched in quality by a list of importers so small you can count them on one hand. In fact, I could easily spend my life limited to the wines of only two, Rosenthal and Kermit Lynch, and never be bored.

Wine is indeed a social event, it’s what should be for dinner not “fodder for criticism.”

It seems to be a part of the American psyche that we take things that should engage our senses in relaxation and pleasure and turn them into a competition. The television is full of food and chef slap downs. Dining is turned into Monday Night Football and now many self-defined “foodies” spend more time watching people cook instead of cooking themselves. Picking up carry out so you can rush home to watch Iron Chef does not make you a foodie. 

Taking time with wine, food and sharing that experience is what makes them such a rewarding part of life. Critics rank wines and taste wines against each other, which is a cruel thing to do to wine of subtlety and grace. Just like in the cooking shows theatrics always win the battle when little time is taken for reflection. It’s the quiet side of wine that needs more attention these days. Its easy to find the biggest and baddest wines, just refer to the wine critics as that’s what their system will give you. Perhaps one of the best parts of the rise of the wine blogging community is there you’re more likely to find someone writing about how a wine makes them feel rather than how they rank it.

When looking for wine recommendations take them from someone who spent some time with them. Tasting dozens of wines a day (or hundreds) is not a reliable way to form a meaningful opinion of a wine and such recommendations must be taken for what they are, meaningless. Does it really matter if the wine you are enjoying so much with your dinner was ranked a few points lower than the wine being enjoyed at the next table? Wine appreciation is about appreciating wine, more accurately about appreciating life.

In the scope of things in today’s world it’s a small thing for sure, but it is exactly those small things that make wine and food so wonderful. Pay attention.

Why Does That Wine Cost $550 A Bottle?

fredthompson_jmccarth_8441278 It was a quiet Sunday night in late January, not a big night even for this well-known restaurant. I got a reservation with no problem.  Not long after we were seated a couple swept into the room with a bottle in tow. He was grey haired and elegantly, but casually dressed. She was quite a bit younger and beautiful – just like the bottle of wine he was carrying.  It seems he had decided to bring two trophies to dinner.

The wine was 2006 Chateau Margaux and it goes for well over $500 a bottle these days. Probably cheap compared to his date. The sommelier did his duty and was suitable attentive as he pulled the cork and poured the wine. Graciously they offered him a taste. Then they ordered. He took a bowl of clam chowder, she a dozen pristine, fresh oysters – and that was it. Now I’m as open minded as they come when it comes to serving red wine with almost anything, but one thing I know for sure is that a young, tannic red Bordeaux is disgusting with fresh oysters and not much better with chowder. Yet the fact that the Margaux was nowhere ready to drink and that it was terrible with the food made not a difference to this couple. It only mattered that they could afford it. That’s why it costs $550 a bottle because people that don’t have a clue about what they’re eating or drinking buy it because it costs $550. A living example of the which came first the chicken or the egg dilemma. They didn’t buy the wine because it was great, but because it was expensive.

There is a range where wines are expensive because of their excellence, but that dollar point is passed at a much lower level than today’s trophy wines. It’s hard to say where that line is, but $550 is way over the top. Such prices are achieved only when people who have no idea what they’re drinking must have a wine to prove they know what they’re drinking.

Much to the pleasure of the staff, when they left the bottle was still a third full and she left almost a full glass. It mattered not because the wine had fulfilled their wants before the cork was pulled. They got their money’s worth.

Note: Fred Thompson was not in attendence that evening. Photo used for humor value alone.

Personal Hygiene

teeth We Americans are afraid of a lot of things. Is your deodorant working? Do your feet stink? Is your breath fresh enough? We have loads of paranoia and loads of products to feed those fears. Now finally someone has created a product to deal with a problem that really matters. Wine Wipes will eliminate that most disgusting of personal hygiene issues, teeth stained by red wines.  Lord knows how embarrassing it is to flash a smile after tasting a few dozen zins. This humbling situation is now a thing of the past as Wine Wipes, packed in a compact complete with a mirror, will wipe away those nasty red wine stains on your teeth. Just knowing that they exist will make me sleep better at night. I better buy them by the case.

Burn Baby, Burn

flamethrower-boat Over the last several days I've tasted four wines sporting 14.8% or so alcohol. They were two pinots, a merlot and a sangiovese all from the West Coast. It just doesn't work. These wines burn. Wines for the table that push or exceed 15% alcohol just don't cut it. They're out of balance and they give that burning tingle on the palate that works great with whiskey, but destroys wine. I know people love to point to Amarone when this topic comes up, but Amarone is more a wine for cheese and cigars than something for lamb chops or pasta. I know the hedge fund guys love Amarone with big steaks, but the honest truth is that match sucks and they like it only because Amarone is the only wine they can taste after a couple of martinis.  However, Amarone has a lot more going for it than the American wines I just tasted because of its unique production method, which provides the deep fruit extract required to handle all that alcohol. It's a one of kind wine that can soar in the right situation: the main course not being one of them.

American producers need to get their alcohol levels under control. It is destroying not only their wines, but those that drink them. Yes you can have some wonderful wines with higher alcohol levels, but when it comes to food, which is what wine should be all about, when you're closer to 15% than 14% you're over the legal limit. Consumers should seriously consider putting the bottle back on the shelf when they see 14.5% and up on the label. Not that those wines can never be good, but the chances are that if you buy them you'll get burned.

Worth Reading: On Restaurant Wine Pricing in the WSJ

Cracking the Code Of Restaurant Wine Pricing -
"At Legal Sea Foods in Washington, a bottle of 1999 Dom Pérignon Champagne costs $155. At McCormick & Schmick's, less than half a mile away, the same bottle goes for $250. At Carnevino in Las Vegas, it's $450, and at Per Se in New York, it's $595."

If anything ever proved that money can't buy good taste it's that diners experiencing the glories of Manhattan's exceptional Per Se Restaurant actually buy Dom Perignon. You also can't help wondering why a restaurant so obsessed with quality would put Dom Perignon on the list in the first place. Of course, If anyone would like to give me $595 for a bottle I'd be pleased to sell them all they want.

Deep Roots

eiffel hippie I arrived in Strasbourg with great excitement as it was my first visit to France. After months in Austria and Germany drinking the best beer I’d ever tasted, for my first meal in France I thought I should try the beverage that France was famous for and ordered a pitcher of Edelzwicker in an inexpensive Weinstube. That was it for me. For the next month I drank carafe after carafe of, what I discovered later, was the most ordinary wine the French could make. It mattered not, I loved it.

That was 1973 and I was just a student “studying” in Europe. Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours has asked us to go back to our vinous roots for this fourth anniversary of his creation, Wine Blogging Wednesday, a monthly project focusing the wine blogging community on one topic. The roots of my love of wine run deeply back over thirty years ago to my first adventure outside the United States. After Strasbourg I spent a month traveling around France drinking wine, none of it of any pedigree, but that mattered not to my virgin palate, which, having been nurtured in the puritanical Mid-West had never been exposed to the tawdry culinary temptations indulged in daily by Europeans. The trip concluded with a week in Paris, where being essentially penniless, I subsisted by going to the store and buying the cheapest wine I could buy, which I took to the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower. That park was filled with hippies and for the price of a bottle of wine you could join in luscious communal meals of fresh bread, sausages and whatever people would bring. These simple repasts were the most exciting meals I had ever tasted. In some ways they still are.

Feeling quite sophisticated on my return to America I sauntered into a store to buy a bottle of wine and suddenly realized I didn’t know a thing. These wbwlogo wines had actual names! So I purchased The New Signet Book of Wine by Alexis Bespaloff and there was no going back. Soon I was blind tasting jugs of Almaden Claret and Burgundy and rating them: points and all.

Lenn’s topic taking us back to our roots caused me a dilemma. True to the saying, “you can’t step in the same river twice” I realized that the wines that were the roots of my lifelong love of wine don’t exist anymore. From the simplest to the most complex wines no one is making wines that taste like they did thirty years ago. The dramatic advancements in winegrowing and winemaking has transformed wines in the last decades. I’m not just referring to “spoofulated” wines here, but also to natural wines made with minimalist interventions. Even considering that many producers have taken this new knowledge to extremes and are producing exaggerated wines with no individual personality you cannot deny that overall today’s wines are superior to the wines of the past. Faults like Brettanomyces that were accepted in the good-old-days are now rejected by even casual wine drinkers. We are truly in a golden age of wine quality. Wines have never been better, but then every generation since the first wine was enjoyed can make that claim.

While wines may be better than ever, I confess I miss the naivety and openness with which we were able to learn to love wine. These were the days before wine became a big business, before distributor consolidation and before there was a 100 point scale to define not only what wines to drink if you’re in-the-know, but to precisely rank them. In those days a fledgling wine publication called The Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine rated its top wines with one, two or three “puffs”. It was a softer time indeed.

As I enter my fourth decade of paying attention to the wines I drink, I seem to find myself more-and-more drawn to wines that take me back to my roots and the style of the wines I learned to love in the 1970’s. I’m not talking about those simple country wines of my first visit to Europe, although they still have a soft spot in my heart, but to the wines I started to buy after reading Alexis Bespaloff’s wonderful introduction to the wines of the world. Elegant Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, Chianti Classico and Dolcetto d’Alba are more likely to grace my dinner table than wines normally found higher on the point scale. I just can’t separate wine from the food I’m having and am more interested in bottles that enhance and elevate my dinner than those that can win blind tastings.

The greatest thing about the wines from my youth is that they aged beautifully, which is something that today’s cleaner, more fruit-driven wines still have to prove. I’m lucky to have a small collection and still have bottles from those days. Recent wines I’ve had from my cellar include a 1981 Girard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1980 Fisher Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 Monsecco Gattinara, 1978 Prunotto Barolo and 1981 Domaine de la Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Cru Caillerets, which were all wonderful wines. For better or worse, not one of these producers makes wine today in the way they did when they made these wines.

The only way I can go back to my roots is to try to remember how these wines tasted when I first bought them. Yet, I don’t think my memory, filtered through all the wines I’ve tasted since then, is unbiased enough to remember them as they really were. That’s fine with me. I’d rather remember them through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia, just as I do those “wonderful” wines I drank under the Eiffel Tower thirty-five years ago. Those wines were certainly the most important wines I’ve ever tasted as they gave me the gift of every wine I have tasted since then.

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Self Confidence

self-confidenceIt seems no matter how many centuries we've been around that Americans lack a certain self-confidence internationally. While perhaps not a big deal when it comes to food and wine, this attitude had caused more than a few foreign policy disasters and wars. We don't need to go into that here as there are a lot more political blogs than wine blogs.

This lack of vinous confidence despite decades of evidence to the contrary seems to have spawned two groups of fine wine consumers. The first group are the radical right wing winos who rant that big, bold American wines are the best and damn terroir, while the winey left wing socialists wax poetic about the intellectually superior wines from Europe. What both of these groups miss is the fact that American wines have come a long way baby. We make great wines here, but what we don't make (or try to make) anymore are European wines. The insecure, copycat days are gone and American winemakers make wines that are great, but different. Different is the important word as our wines have developed their own personality. You can like it or not, but that individuality is making American wines as exciting as European wines - in their own way.

Unfortunately the exciting Portland Oregon dining scene still lacks the confidence to appreciate the exciting diversity of wines from the Northwest. In their own backyard some of the world's finest wines are being grown, but restaurateurs can't get out of the confines of Portland to really taste and understand their own local wines. The really upsetting aspect of this is that it's hard to think of a restaurant scene that is more committed to local produce, but then features wines from 5000 miles away with food that they insist is local and sustainable. You can read my comments on this topic in my column in the Oregon Wine Press: Eat Local? Drink Local!.

Gone are the days when you have to feature European wines to have a great wine list. I suppose part of this problem is the fact that the best small European estates are represented by passionate importers like Joe Dressner who can market them as a whole bigger than the sum of its parts, while American wineries must go it alone. These dedicated importers give small European producers a bigger-than-life image due to their passionate sales efforts on their behalf. Small American wineries can barely afford a sales manager much less the travel and entertainment budget of a importer representing dozens of producers nationally. Because of this they get less attention from distributor sales staffs and the press. Strangely enough the American three tier system is stacked against American wineries, while giving small European producers that are part of a larger importer's portfolio an advantage.

The most important thing is that American wines no longer have to take a back seat to European wines. Neither is better, they're just different and that's the way it should be and American wine buyers should invest more time and effort to discover and understand our own wonderful wines.  The self confidence of American wine buyers needs to catch up with that of American winemakers.

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Chicken Little

All it takes are gray skies and a little more rain than usual and the wine press panics. Taking the Chicken Little approach to winegrowing, the sky-is-falling stories soon start to appear. Perhaps this is understandable as bad news sells better than good. Thankfully, the winegrowers themselves have much cooler heads. Cooler heads like Adelsheim’s excellent winemaker David Paige in the article below:

Wines & Vines - News Headlines - Northwest Vineyards Off to a Cool Start

David Paige notes, “We’re not at the point where anybody should be declaring disaster,” he said. “If we do our jobs, we are going to be absolutely fine. And if we get all the wrong weather, we’ll probably still be fine—as long as we’re on top of it.”

The wine press seems to still operate with a 70’s mentality, which is the last time a major wine region suffered vintages that produced commercially unsalable wine like Barolo and Bordeaux in 1972. The fact is that enology and viticulture have advanced so far since those days that vintages like that will not occur again. Every year producers can make at the minimum good wines. The only question vintage offers any more is how hard they’ll have to work and how good the wines will be.

For great reds today, the only rating necessary is if they’re ready to drink young or not. It’s quite nice of Mother Nature to mix vintages that need aging with those ready to drink young.

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Trading Down On Wine

BlackstoneCalMerlotLabel "You'll see people who on a regular basis have been drinking Kendall-Jackson at $13 and all of a sudden Blackstone is fine at $10," said Dale Stratton, vice president of strategic insights for Constellation Wines U.S., which owns Blackstone, the popular merlot brand. "Loyalty is very low in our category."

Trading down on wine | Santa Rosa Press Democrat // News for California's North Bay and Redwood Empire

Is moving down to Blackstone from Kendall Jackson really trading down? It seems to me that wines like this are indistinguishable from each other. The real question would be why in the world would anyone pay $3 more for the Kendall Jackson in the first place? Mr. Stratton's comment, "Loyalty is very low in our category" is true for one reason: there is no real difference between California wines in this price range. Considering the fact that they know this fact, I can't imagine that the marketing directors and sales managers of these companies sleep very well at night.

A marketing plan that values conformity and fears personality creates this kind of nightmare for those that practice it. Consumers are loyal to wines with distinctive character, which is something any producer should be able to deliver when a wine is over $10 a bottle. These wines don't.

America's greatest wines are stunning examples of the winemaker's art that rival any wine in the world. Why can't we make a good $10 merlot?


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More Taste, Less Filling

My flight was delayed and I was facing a three hour wait at DFW so I decided I might as well eat. Picking out the most promising restaurant I could find, I sat down at the bar and ordered the simplest thing on the menu, which is always my defensive eating strategy in such places. I was in no hurry so stretched out my dining experience as long as possible. During those forty five minutes or so the guy next to me downed four Coor’s Lights. With nothing else to do, but watch my barmates, I noticed they were all drinking light beers. On top of that they they were all drinking a lot of them and not a glass was in use. Lots and lots of long neck lights were being downed while the draft lines went undisturbed.

Coming from Oregon I’m used to anybody and everybody drinking craft brews. Besides the fact that there seems to be as many brew pubs as gas stations in Oregon, you even find a line-up of craft brews on tap on the dumpy-ist country tavern. Here taste in beer tends to run to IPA’s with such bitter hop intensity that Coor’s Light has more in common with Perrier than our local brews. Living in such a place makes you forget what most Americans want in their food and drink.

What they want is little or no flavor or extremes of flavor. In some ways the Oregonian adulation of beers with so many hops that you can taste nothing else is just the mirror image of the Coor’s light drinker who likes it because it has almost no flavor at all. This is why we have such extremes of flavor in our culture and why you have people washing down blistering hot Tex-Mex and Asian foods with flavorless beer. Look what we do to Sushi, that most delicate of foods, as we insist to douse it in wasabi and soy sauce, which only insures we can’t taste if the fish is fresh or not. Sushi insiders know if you want the chef to give you the best fish you have to show him you’re not going to ruin it.

This is a huge dilemma for winemakers. Are we faced with making only innocuous industrial wines or supercharged spoofulated wines to stay in business? Fortunately no, as wines with complexity, balance and elegance can never be mass produced and there will always be a niche market for such wines. However, such producers have to accept that most Americans will never understand their wines as their palates just are not attuned to delicate, complex flavors.

On this same trip I was lucky to eat at the excellent Parkside Restaurant in Austin Texas where chef Shawn Cirkiel features one of the best selections of the freshest oysters you’ll find anywhere. The people next to me asked many questions about the oysters. They’d been to some great restaurants including Gary Danko and The French Laundry and were clearly into food. When their pristine oysters arrived they requested Tabasco and proceeded to obliterate each and every nuance of the assorted oysters in front of them. For wine the Tabasco is too much new oak, over-ripe grapes, dry ice and all the other over-manipulations of modern, spoofulated winemaking.

Today taste in America means more is better. Light beer is popular because you can drink more of it. Burning hot food is popular because anybody can taste it. Huge portions must be a great deal, right? It’s no wonder that wines with the most (most flavor or most advertising) are the most popular at all points on the price spectrum.

Debating Points: Spoofulation

debate I find George Will particularly irritating. The conservative columnist and television commentator is just too smart and well-spoken. All too often in face-to-face debates he shreds the argument of the liberal commentator across the table from him with his swifter wit and broader knowledge. It ticks me off no end.

In the debate about so called “natural” winemaking we have the same situation. Clark Smith, winemaker, super-consultant and king of spoofulated wines as the owner of Vinovation, is becoming as irritating to me as Will and for the same reasons. Smith, who makes his own wines besides consulting and “correcting” wines for hundreds of wineries, just has too much knowledge and experience for it to be a fair fight when it comes to debating winemaking ethics with people who have never made wines themselves. All to often these people are known as wine writers. It does surprise me how many writers who have don’t have enology degrees and whose experience working harvests is more akin to adventure vacations than real winemaking come to consider themselves winemaking experts. After all, does a trip to a dude ranch make you a cowboy?

Smith uses his superior knowledge and experience to effectively dismantle the “natural” winemaking debating team’s positions (which I mostly agree with) as he did in a recent article published on Appellation America’s website called Spoofulated or Artisanal, which is well worth reading. Spoofulated, for those unfamiliar with the term that debuted on the Wine Therapy Forum and became part of wine lingo, refers to manipulated wines, which are often made in a style that appeals to Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator. It is a word used as an insult by those seeking a more terroir-driven winemaking experience as spoofulated wines all-to-often taste more-or-less the same.

Is spoofulation always evil? I don’t think so. Commercial wines, which are produced for consumers not seeking nuance or complexity, but just a “winey” tasting beverage are better wines than ever due to these techniques. For all to long these inexpensive wines produced in huge quantities were thin and faulted. However, now those seeking nothing more can easily buy clean, fruity wines that neither require nor invite thought or contemplation. It is a fact of the market that the vast majority of consumers are perfectly satisfied with such wines and want nothing more. Clark Smith and his methods are a positive boon to such consumers.

It’s when wines pretend  to more lofty goals that Clark Smith and I part company. I’ll draw an arbitrary line at the $10 a bottle point. That’s starting to get expensive and I think the consumer has a right to expect that wines with different labels will actually be different wines. The main problem with spoofulated wines is that they all taste the same. The differences get manipulated out as the wine is more-and-more manipulated. The fact that there are so many expensive New World wines that exhibit the bright simple ripe flavors of the commercial wines mentioned above is a real problem that is starting to destroy the reputation of places like the Napa Valley. Consumers that are willing to spend a significant amount of money for these wines are starting to realize how boring they are.

On the other end of the argument are writers who are “natural” wine fundamentalists who seem to believe the high point in winemaking knowledge was achieved by the Romans and any technique or knowledge achieved after Nero are unnatural manipulations that destroy a wines terroir. Of course such extremists only display their limited winemaking knowledge and a lack of sophistication as they (instead of the wines) are manipulated by winemakers who tell them only what they want to hear. While there are many winemakers who believe in and practice minimalist, natural winemaking, there are few to none willing to let several tons of fruit in a fermenter with problems become garbage without taking actions that don’t always meet these ideals. These are stories that journalists are unlikely to hear or understand if they did. Contrary to some writers opinions, winemakers sometimes actually have to make wine.

Spoofulators like Clark Smith and biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly actually have more in common than partisans on either side of the debate understand. Both are passionate, brilliant winemakers who are driven to pursue their vision of what makes a wine great. To make a truly great wine you need to ignore the ranting of journalists and the whims of consumers and make the wine you believe in. This is something that winemakers like Smith and Joly share.

As always, those that oversimplify issues are usually blinded to the finer points of the debate. 


Marriott Blues

I admit I really out of it when it comes to California wines. I just don't drink them as there are so few I enjoy. There are also California wines I love like: Calera, Alma Rosa, Edmunds St. John, Iron Horse, Corison and Spottswoode to name just a few. However as the number of wineries I really enjoy are indeed few, I don't pull many corks from bottles of California wine.

Forced into a hotel restaurant dinner due to the late hour of my arrival, I decided to try to be open minded and give The Golden State another shot and ordered a glass of 2005 Clos du Bois Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, which my host for the evening, Marriott, was offering for $15 a glass and $50 a bottle. I mean, at that price it must be pretty good, right?

The first sip was smooth enough, although there was little varietal character. My taste buds now awakened, the second sip revealed much more. This wine tasted, for lack of a better word: cheap. It was like the awful under $10 California Cabernet stacked up at your local grocery store. My righteous indignation meter was off the charts. How could Clos du Bois dare foist such a mediocre wine on consumers at such a price!

Upon returning to my room I checked to find the retail price of this rip-off only to find this wine sells for around $13 a bottle. That means Marriott is paying about $7 a bottle (or less). What we have here is rip-off build up. First of all, this weak effort by Clos du Bois would be overpriced at $4 a bottle, but, perhaps, the Marriott has even more to be ashamed of as, instead of offering their guests a decent glass of wine for $15, they offer only wines they can cut a deal on.

How does this happen? Well Clos du Bois is owned by Constellation Brands, which describes itself as " a leading international producer and marketer of beverage alcohol brands" (that's inspiring) and "the largest by volume wine producer in the world" (doesn't that excite your taste buds). Besides wine this massive company sells beer and spirits. Conglomerates like this come in and set up all sorts of cross-brand deals with national chains like Marriott and often incentives that, shall we say, don't meet the letter of the law have been known to change hands. However (ahem), I'm sure this did not happen in this case.

Brands like Clos du Bois are industrial wines at their worst. They are bad wines and bad values that exist and sell only because of the marketing muscle and money behind them. They also exist because national chains like Marriott are too lazy or too cheap to put in place decent wine programs.

You can be sure you'll find the folks from Constellation and Marriott partying down together in Vegas as this year's WSWA convention. After all, what better place is there to cut a deal than in Vegas.


On the Road Again

If it’s Friday it must be Charleston. I’ve been on a whirlwind sales trip as you can probably tell from my lack of posts recently. I’ll make up for that over the weekend as I catch up with my notes. I started off with six days in Manhattan followed by stops in Charlotte, Greenville S.C., Charleston, Hilton Head and Savannah.

As you travel though the United States these days you can’t help but be impressed by the explosion of interest in artisan wines and foods. It’s no surprise to find excellent restaurants in Manhattan, but everywhere you travel in the United States today you find excellent independently owned restaurants run by chefs dedicated to using outstanding ingredients and doing their best to source them locally. It was not so many years ago that this was not the case.

Fortunately these restaurants carry their passion over into their wine lists and it’s more and more common to find excellent offerings by the bottle and by the glass. Varieties like grüner veltliner, albarino, tempranillo and aglianico are pushing chardonnay, merlot and cabernet into minor roles on many wine by the glass lists. Wait staffs and bartenders gush about their favorite riesling, but turn up their noses when you ask about the chardonnay.

Things are changing and, in fact, are starting to change faster and faster. If this keeps up you may actually be able to get a decent glass of wine at national chains like Friday’s and Houlihan’s in a few years. Well, maybe that’s getting a little carried away. 

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Hot Restaurants

hot wine The food was fantastic as was the wine list. There were so many interesting wines to choose from that it was difficult to order. All was in place for a great wine evening and the Riedels on the table sparkled in anticipation of delights soon to pass from their lips to ours. The evening started with the sublime Champagne, Pierre Gimmonet, Blanc de blancs 1er Cru, Cuvée Gastronome, 2002, which is creamy, toasty and complex with a finish that just won't quit. It was paired with an assortment of pristine Puget Sound oysters and it was such a magical interplay that it only sharpened our palates for the wine and food yet to come.

The impending arrival of our next courses called for red wine and the Chénas, Vieilles Vignes de 1939, Pascal Aufranc, 2005 arrived at the table and was poured only to be met with tepid enthusiasm. That tepid response was caused by the temperature of the wine, not the wine itself. Once again a restaurant that was flying all the flags of a serious wine restaurant ignored one of the most basic requirement for serving a fine wine. Our Chénas had to be almost 75 degrees. What was an elegant, beautiful wine had been turned into a mushy, cooked hot alcoholic brew. We summoned an ice bucket and actually poured our glasses back into the bottle to try to save what we could of this wine, but, while the buckets chill dramatically improved the wine after ten minutes, putting a natural wine through this kind of roller coaster will not bring out the best in a wine.

Hot restaurants serving hot red wines is a ridiculously common occurrence. They spend and spend on the accoutrements of fine wine, but then ignore one of the basics of wine service: temperature.  Proper serving temperature for most red wines is in the 60's, not the 70's, and it's better to error on the side of cooler rather than warmer.  I am amazed how many times I've had a sommelier rave about this or that obscure producer only to pour a lukewarm wine into a glass that costs more than the wine. A restaurant that does not make the effort to serve their wines at the proper temperature cannot be considered to have a serious wine program. This also applies to their wine-by-the-glass programs where half-empty bottles languish on the back bar no matter the balmy ambient temperature.

America is the country where we serve red wines too warm and white wines too cold.

What a Loss

With the first of the year approaching and people making all those New Year’s Resolutions, I think this quote, which is from Florida Jim’s signature line at Wine Therapy, is particularly meaningful:

“I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days.” Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.”

Wine That Loves

buynow-pasta While living in Italy I always thought that the best value wines I found were the most versatile with food. An excellent dolcetto or montepulciano tasted pretty good with pasta, pizza or or bistecca. It was only buynow-pizza the most expensive, distinctive wines that wanted or deserved more precise food pairings. After all there is eating and there is fine dining. There are peak culinary experiences and then there is just plain good eating. I’ve found in those good eating circumstances that the wine you choose can be very adaptable as long as it’s a good wine. Good food and good wine, there’s not much more you could want on most nights.  Save the perfect matches for Per Se and special occasions, but other than that just enjoy. This is particularly true at the more reasonably priced end of the wine spectrum where the best wines are up-front, fruity and just plain delicious.

However, a new company seems to disagree with my simple pleasures and insist that they have developed a line of $12.99 wines that are so diverse that they have selected and produced individual red wines to go with specifically “pasta with tomato sauce”, “roasted chicken”, “pizza” and “grilled steak”. Frankly, I find it hard to conceive of a $12.99 red wine that I really like that I wouldn’t happily consume with any of these dishes.

Let’s think about what these wines are all about. They don’t own vineyards or a winery so they are out there buying in bulk and coming up with blends. Not that there is anything wrong with that if you make a good everyday wine, but there seems to be a scam going on when they take these bulk wines and try to con the consumer into laying in a supply of the “different” blends so they don’t make the disastrous mistake of having to serve the “pizza” blend with chicken one night because they’d run out of the proper “roasted chicken” blend. Which apparently somehow would ruin your dinner by being an imperfect match.

This is just what the already self-conscious American consumer needs, the feeling that wines selling for 12 bucks need to be precisely matched to just the right food to be enjoyed. On top of this the lone white in the line-up is for “Grilled Salmon”. How confident are we to be in their recommendations if they can’t even get the color of the wine to be served right?

Wine loves food, but to be so picky about it at this price range is silly at best.

Wine That Loves

The New Prohibition

 Wines & Vines - News Headlines - Oregon Shipping Permits Needed

When the Supreme Court seemingly overthrew interstate shipping restrictions for wine a few years ago we all celebrated. However, the cure was worse than the disease in this case. Formerly there may have been only a small group of reciprocal states, but they were easy. If you shipped to them they’d ship to you. That’s all there was too it. Today that system is being thrown by the wayside as state after state foregoes the simplicity of the old reciprocal system and adds layers of taxes and registrations required for out of state wineries to ship to consumers in that state. Now even Oregon has gone down this path.

The fundamental argument here is that large, industrial producers and distributors want to eliminate any competition from small producers in their markets and pay “lawmakers” to create regulations that give them a monopoly in their markets. As only small wine producers and consumers are hurt there seems to be nothing to worry about in state capitals across the nation.

There is no such thing as consumer protection when the government gets involved in wine, It’s only about grabbing tax money.

An Opulent Certification

scarecrow.jpgIn the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow finally gets his brain by getting a piece of paper he can frame and put on the wall. While the Scarecrow had to prove his intelligence to get his paper, there are other documents that people hang on their walls that prove exactly the opposite. After all, there is that old saying that a fool is born every minute.

Now you too can prove to your friends that you are a bonafide wine expert by getting your very own piece of paper to hang on the wall. For a mere $195 you can get certificates ready for framing from The Parker & Zraly Wine Certification Program, which you can check out at this link: Wine Certification Program.

Having to hang such a document on your wall to prove you’re an expert proves something else. Taking that $195 and investing it in a few books and, most importantly, more wine to taste is a far better investment. There is also the reality that these days there is a vast amount of information available online for free. If you really need something to put on the wall, you also can just print one up on your own.

Next time you wander into someone’s office or house and see one of these certificates, the refrain, “If I only had a brain” should come into your head.