I was running late and feeling desperate. My friend’s dinner party had started 20 minutes ago, and here I was in an unremarkable wine store on an unremarkable corner of the Upper East Side scanning the shelves for a palatable wine at a palatable price. Next to the Chiantis was an under-$20 bottle of Morellino di Scansano, a name that was then unfamiliar to me. Good enough. It ended up being a happy gamble, a delicious, affable wine that everyone liked. Since then, I’ve always felt like Morellino was my trusty little friend and special secret.
Well, the cat’s out of the bag. A lot of investment has poured into Morellino di Scansano, situated in the Tuscan coastal region of the Maremma, and it earned DOCG status in 2007. The promotional machine is very much up and running, and a delegation of winemakers and local representatives were on hand for several events in New York this past week.
They were emissaries of quiet Italian elegance, where one tosses a Loro Piana sweater over one’s shoulder just so, and the winemakers speak of organic farming in perfect, British-accented English. (Although they’re not afraid to let down their guard. When I asked one winemaker what he thought of Italian food in New York, he admitted that “if I cooked pasta this way at home, I would be — how you say? — shot.”)
The wines are similarly mellow. They’re required to be at least 85% Morellino (that’s Sangiovese to you and me), but the remainder can be any number of varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or local faves like Ciliegiolo. You won’t find the bright assertiveness of Chianti or stately grace of Brunello di Montalcino here: Morellino is their kinder, gentler cousin. From the lineup of 8 wines offered, my favorites were the 2010 Poggio Argentiera Capatosta and the 2008 Fattoria Mantellassi Riserva Le Sentinelle. The former has the liveliness and structure that lesser Morellinos lack, while the latter makes a case for the wine’s darker, more brooding side. Both were exceedingly food friendly, and it would be tough to think of a tomato-based pasta sauce/burger/grilled pork chop they wouldn’t work well with. While the prices have climbed since my first encounter with Morellino — the wines are now in the $20-$30 range — their accommodating, up-for-anything nature has not.
My almost two-year-old twin boys have entered the chatterbox phase. They are overflowing with words to describe their environment: two shoes, mommy’s cup, big shark book. Their vocabulary and their thinking are anchored in the concrete. It will be a little while before they understand abstract concepts completely, and acquire the words to express them.
Watching this process has me thinking differently about the language we use to describe wine. The current state of the tasting note is, well, not good. Eric Asimov cites a number of howlers in his recent book, How to Love Wine. (Check out my favorite chapter, Tyranny of the Tasting Note.) To my mind, the biggest problem with notes today is this: they are chock full of nouns. They’re a hodge-podge of names of things — roasted plums, dried thyme, Maduro tobacco — that remind me of how my toddlers see the world. Just like my little guys aren’t demonstrating a capacity for abstract thought yet, or an understanding of associations and comparisons, most tasting notes are stuck firmly in the world of things. As in, “here’s something that tastes like some other stuff, let me list them out. 92 points.” If, as writers and readers, we think of wine only in these concrete terms, we miss out on subtlety and sophistication. It’s infantilizing. Concepts like balance or terroir will elude us. Consciously or not, we give more weight to wines that taste like things, and less weight to wine that taste of a place. I’m not a terroir absolutist, and I understand that tasting notes are convenient and practical shorthand, but we do ourselves a disservice if we rely on these notes, and the wines they benefit most, to the exclusion of all else.
Back when I had time to teach wine classes (pre-chatterbox toddlers) I loved to pour cru Beaujolais for my students, if only to show them the world beyond Duboeuf. Once, after asking a group to talk about the Morgon in front of us, a student said that “nothing about the wine stuck out.” She spoke reluctantly, certain she had said something stupid. I asked her to elaborate, and gradually I understood what she meant, and why she felt so sheepish about it. There was no “flavor” that jumped out at her, no raspberry jam or flambéed cherries or whatever it was she thought an ” expert” would identify. It just tasted like wine to her, wine that she liked. in fact, it was exactly the kind of wine she preferred. But she didn’t know how to ask for it, because she didn’t have the vocabulary she needed. “Nothing sticking out” was her way to explain that it was balanced. That it tasted of fruit, but wasn’t exactly fruity. that it had just as much alcohol as she wanted. That it was refreshing, even, not something she usually thought of in red wine. (And the more she drank, the more she wanted something delicious to eat with it.) How can we provide someone like her with a wine vocabulary that’s ample, descriptive and nuanced?
We spend a lot of ink and pixels criticizing winemakers who produce simplistic, overblown wines and the people who drink these wines. But if we want more people to appreciate different kinds of wine, we need to give them different language to understand and express their experience.
If I had to draw up my list of wine buying rules, these would be at the top:
1. Avoid any Pinot Noir under $25.
2. Avoid California Pinot Noir, unless someone I like and trust has recommended it — and is paying.
3. Avoid drinking anything with the word “Project” in the name.
And yet. One of the nicest bottles I’ve had this month was the inauspiciously named “The Pinot Project,” a wine made from Pinot grapes bought in across the state of California. It’s a well-made, well-balanced wine (no syrupy stuff here, although don’t expect Burgundian complexity) that would go with more or less anything you’d want to eat alongside a bottle of red wine. For $14 no less! The price-quality ratio goes down very easy — particularly if you overlook any long-held assumptions about cheap California Pinot.
If you’re an avid reader of lady magazines and blogs, you will recognize this frequent piece of shopping advice: don’t wait until the last minute before a big event to buy your super-special outfit. Desperation shopping rarely leads to good decision-making.
The same holds true for wine. One of the biggest differences I notice between the JV and the varsity wine drinker is that the former is much more likely to buy a wine just for a specific meal or occasion, whereas the latter picks up a bottle that interests her, whether or not she knows when or how or with whom she’ll drink it. To continue the fashion analogy, the same thinking that prompts someone to buy, say, a pair of crystal-studded pair of Giuseppe Zanotti platforms
with no clear idea of where she’ll wear them is what compels someone like me to buy a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer here, a half case of Lambrusco there, and why not some Poire William while I’m at it? Just like the most fashionable person you know has the perfect outfit for everything from a summer BBQ to a night out with Beyoncé, the hard-core wine lover has just the right thing to serve her finicky mother-in-law, as well as the ideal bottle for her too-cool-for-Cab sommelier friend. If you’re looking for New Year’s wine resolution guidance, I’d suggest you adopt a similar stance and do as the fashion mags dictate: if you love it and can afford it, buy it.
While STBNY remains resolutely apolitical, I have to admit the run-up to the elections have me in a patriotic, bombastic, speechifying mood. To that end, I thought now was the right time to unload some of my thoughts on the State of Wine in America…so here goes:
Ignore the wine list naysayers, the natural wine warring factions or the 100-point-scale haters — the state of the American wine union is strong. Never have so many been able to procure so much good wine at such good prices. Wine is now less of a Fancy Event thing and more of a “drinking a glass of red on a Tuesday night” thing, which is most definitely progress.
And yet. While all these developments hearten me, I’ve still been feeling like something’s missing. And, then the other day, as I pored over my latest batch of Restoration Pottery Crate & Elm hi-lo aspirational-yet-affordable home catalogues, it hit me: there is no great universal American wine retail experience. There is no coast-to-coast chain that offers consistent product and pricing. No cheery, recognizable logo à la Target’s red bullseye. No Gap-esque “buy the second case at half-off” discounts. You can’t swing a cat at any mall in America without hitting a Sunglass Hut or a GNC — and yet there’s nary a wine store to be found.
It’s not just that the 21st amendment makes buying wine more difficult, or more expensive, for many of us: it’s that the 21st amendment actively impedes the development of a native wine culture. Because while Europeans may come to wine through the dinner table, that’s not really a viable approach for us. We’re not great at long, leisurely meals. But you know what we’re awesome at? Buying stuff. We are awesome, awesome consumers. I say this with fondness and respect. Have you never felt that fluttery sense of excitement and possibility upon walking into a Home Depot Superstore? (“This is the year I turn our decrepit shed into the woodworking shop about which I have always dreamed — and where I will teach my sons all the skills of handy, manly self-reliance I wish my father had imparted upon me!”) Do you not know the deep sense of community that comes from seeing a woman in front of you at Starbucks who is wearing the same top you’re wearing, also scored from the latest, greatest, and now sold-out designer capsule collection from H+M — and from knowing that you have each styled it in completely different ways, as befitting your age, height, weight and overall lifestyle considerations — and yet it looks equally cute on both of you?
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, brands like Target and H+M and Starbucks have made home design and fashion and fancy coffee more accessible to more people. Would a robust national wine store chain bring grower champagne and orange wine to the masses? Probably not. (And they’ll never be enough to go around, anyway.) But it could make wine fun, relevant, affordable, approachable and convenient to many more Americans. And that is, as they say, something we can all get behind.
I love sweet wines — especially paired with something savory or unexpected. Here’s me holding forth on two of my favorites: a Samos Muscat (that’s Greek to you) and a Rivesaltes from Roussillon, in Southern France. Both are unusual, delicious, and more-affordable-than-champagne ways to begin or end a meal.
Forgive the hyperbolic title here, people, but really, what I’m about to say merits it. If there is one fundamental piece of wine knowledge that eludes many wine drinkers, it is this: SWEET AND FRUITY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.
Did you hear that? SWEET DOES NOT EQUAL FRUITY.
Sweet means that there is a perceptible amount of residual sugar in the wine. Sweetness is something that you taste. Remember in elementary school when you learned how your taste buds register sweet, salty, sour and bitter? (And now, we’ve discovered, umami?) You register sweetness on your tongue.
Fruity means that the wine has strong aromas of fruit. Fruity is about how the wine smells. Remember also in elementary school when you held your nose so you could eat a particularly offending bite of brussel sprouts without gagging? Your nose is much, much more perceptive than your tongue, and most of our “tasting” actually happens with our nose.
Why is this important? Because often when people say they want a “dry” wine, they actually mean they want a wine that is not too fruity. There they are, telling the sommelier or store clerk that they prefer “dry” wine, thinking they’re being helpful, while in fact they’re being the opposite of helpful (to paraphrase Shrek.) There are plenty of wines that are dry, but quite fruity — some Beaujolais and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — and are likely to disappoint the “I’m saying dry but what I really mean is fruity” crowd. Sweet vs. fruity has got to be the leading cause of wine disillusionment and confusion for the casual drinker. (And not-so-casual. I’ve been to more than one tasting where serious wine peeps have gotten tripped up on this.)
Consumers and wine professionals alike need to take action. Here’s what I recommend:
If you are a consumer, the next time you get a glass of wine that seems “sweet” to you, take a deep whiff. Are you smelling lots of stuff you associate with “sweet” — tropical fruit, peaches, raspberries, honeysuckle, etc? Is that what’s bumming you out? Then plug your nose and take a sip. Does the wine still seem sweet to you? And if so, is that the problem? If it’s the aromas that are bothering you, then, well, you may not like intensely fruity wine. And if the sweetness bothers you, then OK, perhaps you’re sensitive to sugar and really do need for your wines to be bone dry. But keep in mind that even if this is the case, the vast majority of bottles in any store or on any wine list are dry. (With some obvious exceptions: dessert and fortified wines, most notably.)*
And if you are a wine professional, (nicely) interrogate your customer. Ask for examples of dry/sweet wines they have and haven’t liked. Last week I saw a fresh-out-of-college wine clerk at my local liquor store do this very well, helping a woman transition from cheap Moscato to a nice Sauvignon Blanc. Turns out she loved the fruitiness of Moscato but hated the sweetness of it. This is not brain surgery, and it’s not particularly sexy — but it’s the most important piece of wine guidance you’ll ever give.
*(Sidebar: if a wine is sweet, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are many great, sweet wines in the world. Liking sweet wine doesn’t mean you’re a moron. Check out this recent glowing review that Jancis Robinson gave a Gallo Moscato!)
Most of the wine-related peeps I read about are dudes. However, many of the wine-related peeps I’ve met, worked with, and knocked back a few glasses/bottles with are women. So please welcome this new STBNY feature, Wine, Women and Blog, wherein I introduce you to some of them.
First up is Colleen Fleming, Assistant Manager of Kelly Fleming Wines. Located in Calistoga, this winery produces less than 1,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc each year. Their wines are a great reminder not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: yes, yes, yes, there are way too many overextracted Napa wines out there in circulation, but these are not among them. The Cabernet Sauvignon is lush, no doubt, but there’s elegance at play, too. At $90 a pop, it’s not a bargain, but relatively speaking, it offers good value.
I would compare our Cabernet to a Haruki Murakami novel. On the surface it’s a realistic wine, but has an underlying surrealist, magical quality! It expands and contracts. Alternately, sometimes I try it with a perfect food pairing, roast quail or grilled lamb, and it’s like a Buddy Guy song. It can be a radical moment.
What wine (aside from your own!) could you not live without?
German Rieslings, especially ones with a little age and a heavy dose of petrol.
What wine region are you dying to visit next?
Germany or Champagne.
What’s the oddest food/wine combination you’ve ever tried?
Chocolate with blue cheese and port. It was weird and awesome.
What wine trend are you most excited about?
More and more farmers taking the leap to organic farming, and also dry farming.
What wine trend would you like to see go the way of the dodo bird?
Oaky malolactic Chardonnay. Sorry!
What’s the best part of being in the wine business?
Drinking all the profits. I’m only half-kidding. I honestly love working with my mom and brother, it’s so fulfilling! I also love being a small boutique winery with a small staff. It forces us all to wear many hats and be involved in everything from cleaning fermentation tanks, walking the vineyards, doing the dishes.
What’s the harshest reality about working in the wine business?
It’s a lot messier and harder than most people think. Harvest is all manual labor! It’s a great work-out though.
What person in the wine business do you most admire?
My mom. She was the sole employee for the first 10 years before the winery was built. She’s a rock star. And a great mom too.
It’s not every mother and daughter who could work together, especially in such a demanding, all-consuming field. What’s your secret to making it work?
Patience, honesty, communication and the reassurance that we can always have a nice big glass of wine at the end of the day. Wine cures all.
We all have our prejudices. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a “thing” against Amarone. Too big. Too overwhelming. Too difficult to match with food. I appreciated that it’s a bit of an oddball wine, made in an oddball fashion — the grapes are dried before they’re fermented, concentrating the flavors in the wine — but that was the extent of my admiration.
I had the chance to challenge my opinions a few weeks ago, when I was invited to a tasting of 2001 Amarones made by some top, family-owned producers. These are wines that need a lot of time to develop, so even the 2001s were a bit rough around the edges. As a whole these wines are big, tannic, and dry. They also feature some unusual, striking flavors(the phrase “chocolate covered craisins” made more than one appearance in my tasting notes). I loved the chance to taste these wines. I loved hearing about them from the people who made them — or, at the very least, the sons and daughters of the people who made them. The 25-year old son of one producer said his father only just started letting him pick the grapes for their Amarone, because it requires so much expertise and care.
I admire these wines more than ever…but I just don’t like them. They don’t move me. Nor do I see how they would really fit into my life — I don’t think I’d enjoy them much on their own, and there are plenty of other big, intense wines I’d turn to for food matching first. So basically, Amarone is the vinous equivalent of this:
I mean, amazing shoes, right? I just can’t see myself wearing them.
If you follow wine media, you probably saw this article on Bordeaux from New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov. If you didn’t, here’s the quick summary: the cool kids don’t like Bordeaux. It’s too Robert Parker. Too corporate. Too expensive. In our quest for the newest, the most “natural,” the most biodynamic, the most idiosyncratic wines, the stodgy châteaux on the banks of the Gironde seem hopelessly passé.
I get it, really I do. But. Wine lovers rejecting Bordeaux is akin to Americans hating on George Washington. It’s an integral part of wine’s history, its mystique, and its hold on our imaginations. Plus a lot of it tastes really, really good.
I was fortunate to experience this first hand a few weeks ago, when Snooth Editor-in-Chief Gregory Dal Piaz opened a few choice Bordeaux for a group of wine writers. The line up included:
1986 Cos d’Estournel (a little stern, but likeable)
1989 Cos d’Estournel (velvety and seductive, if a bit hollow)
1986 Lynch-Bages (corked, alas)
1988 Château Meyney
1989 Château Meyney (my favorite of the bunch – well-balanced, highly drinkable, and remarkably fresh)
1990 Château Meyney
No single wine was perfect, but each offered a snapshot of what Bordeaux can offer: elegance, balance, structure and, of course, longevity. Old-fashioned virtues, I guess, but ones that every wine lover should learn to appreciate.
Besides, without Bordeaux, what would the cool kids have to rebel against?