So much of the “social media has forever changed the wine landscape!” cheerleading (and hand-wringing) has focused on the critic and the consumer. A multitude of voices and tastes have replaced what used to be a much more top-down schematic. Which I’m all for, of course. But an equally welcome — and relatively unheralded — consequence of social media is access to actual winemakers. Whether it’s following producers on Twitter, seeing what they’re drinking thanks to Delectable, or hearing them hold forth on podcasts like I’ll Drink to That, there are unprecedented opportunities to learn about winemaking straight from the source. Along with pulling corks and cracking books, talking to winemakers is a great way to deepen your wine knowledge. A few things I’ve learned:
1. Winemakers drink a lot of Riesling.
2. As a group, they are probably the least full-of-shit people in the wine industry. I could make some dumb assumptions about working the land, knowing the value of hard work, etc., etc. accounting for this, but the truth is, I don’t know why. In any case, they’re mostly a likeable bunch.
3. “Winemaking” as one studies it in, say, a WSET class, bears very little resemblance to actual winemaking. The academic version of winemaking is an abstraction that doesn’t take into account a number of very important things, like what a winemaker does to make decent wine in a crappy vintage in order to remain solvent.
4. Winemaking is really hard work. This isn’t breaking news, but there’s something about seeing Tweeted pics of sorting tables and bottling lines early on a Sunday morning that really brings this lesson home.
But what I love most about following interesting winemakers on social is what they don’t say: their conversation is devoid of buzzwords and euphemisms–no “passion for the land” or “hand-crafted vintages” here. The phony wine mystique foisted on consumers by mediocre copywriters and flacks is stripped away. What remains is the real intrigue, a glimpse into the everyday magic of making wine for a living.
VinExpo, one of the world’s largest wine trade shows, welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors last month — including yours truly. See below for a list, in no particular order, of what I learned from my whirlwind trip.
Warm climate wine producers have the coolest booths.
While the Piedmontese and the Burgundians took a low-key approach to their stands, not so the Corsicans:
or the Brazilians:
Gamay is full of surprises.
I know my way around a cru Beaujolais, but I was still (very pleasantly) surprised to taste the wines of Joseph Burrier. The wines are subtle and focused, and Burrier — a 6th generation winemaker — was chock-full of quotable observations. One of my favorites: “the key with Gamay is to avoid vulgarity.” There was nothing remotely vulgar about these wines. They’re the Audrey Hepburn of cru Beaujolais. Graceful, elegant and unadorned. My favorites were the 2011 Saint-Amour “Côte de Besset,” refined and delicate, and, at the other end of the spectrum the 2001 Fleurie les Colonies de Rochegrès. Here it is, on the right, next to one of its younger compatriots. (You know the tasting starts getting real when the winemaker pulls out the unlabeled bottles.)
The very name Fleurie puts these wines at a disadvantage, says Burrier, as it inevitably prompts drinkers and even writers (ahem) to call these wines floral, charming, and unserious. He uses older vintages like this one to prove that Fleurie has a serious side. The wine is indeed drinking nicely now, and falls into what I think of as “October” wines.
Marketing can’t beat Mother Nature.
The boosterism that pervades events like this was no match for the cold (literally) hard reality of the weather. It was raining cats and dogs — or perhaps just cats if this whimsical sculpture installation was any indication:
In all seriousness, the horrible weather blanketing western France cast a pall on things. It remains to be seen how much the deluge will end up affecting the vintage, but, as they say in PR, “the optics were not good.”
The children are our future.
Tasting and drinking a lot of wine was great, but the best part of my trip was meeting the next generation of France’s wine professionals, from sommeliers to winemakers and everything in between. A young couple who had abandoned their life in Paris to start a winery in Savoie focusing on indigenous grapes. One sommelier with the extremely quixotic, and extremely worthy, pursuit of introducing French people to wines from around the world. (Not an easy task. One Parisian diner, upon seeing Vega Sicilia on his wine list, asked, “they make wine is Spain?”) A Bordeaux winemaker who took as much pride in his Bordeaux Supérieur as his Pomerol. France’s obsession with rules and bureaucracy has a way of sucking the life out of its brightest young people, so it’s beyond encouraging to see all this dynamism and creativity.
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 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?
So it looks like Recession #2 might be upon us soon, people. With my own personal double dip recession in effect, what with the new twins and all, I’m kind of freaking out. One thing I am not worried about, however, is my wine consumption. There are all sorts of relatively painless ways to economize on wine, which I will kindly share with you:
1. Box it up. There are some good box wines out there (even the New York Times thinks so), and ounce for ounce, they represent a great value. Serve it up in this adorable “vin de maison” carafe so people will think you’re charming, not cheap.
2. Ditch the glass. Yes I know, many restaurants have amazing wine-by-the-glass selections. But how many times have you gone out with a friend, drunk a few glasses between the two of you, and realized you could have gotten more wine, for less, if you had just ordered a bottle? Find a happy compromise on a wine you’ll both enjoy and opt for the full bottle.
3. Put a cork(age) in it. Bring your own bottle and pay the restaurant’s corkage fee, usually around $25. Of course, this makes the most sense when you have a pricier bottle to share. If you want to bypass the corkage fee, I’ve found that Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are pretty flexible about letting you bring your own booze. Another option: scout out brand-new restaurants that don’t have their liquor licenses yet.
4. Try something new. A lot of the wines at the fringes of the wine store (ie, not California, France or Italy) can offer really great values. Portuguese whites are cheap and super-refreshing, and sherry is, pound for pound, one of the best value wines around. It’s also high in alcohol and served in smaller portions, so if you’re entertaining, a little goes a long way. Grab that can of Planter’s peanuts in the cupboard, fish out those olives from the back of the fridge, ask a friend to bring over some dried sausage or cheese, and call it a tapas party.
5. Be honest. Now is not the time to pussyfoot around. Tell the wine store salesperson or the sommelier exactly how much you want to spend. You may feel cheesy about it, but being straightforward will actually make their job a lot easier.
6. Free tastings. Every wine store worth its salt has ‘em. They’re a great way to new wines and avoid disappointment. (Even a $10 wine is a crappy value if you don’t like it.) If you taste something you like, make sure to tell the salesperson, so she can recommend similar wines in your price range.
7. Befriend a pregnant or nursing wine blogger. OK, so this one is a little specific. But when I was pregnant, and during my brief breast-feeding phase, I was mostly tasting, rather than drinking. I relied on friends to finish the bottles. I’m just sayin’, don’t be afraid to be opportunistic.
A favorite topic these days among wine folk is alcohol level — that is, are wines getting too alcoholic? Blame climate change (remember, warmer weather=riper grapes=more sugar=more alcohol), blame Robert Parker, blame the American palate, blame Fox News, but many think that the end result is too many wines with elevated alcohol levels. (Check out this post on alcohol levels and balance in Pinot Noir for an informative, if inside-baseball-ish, take on the matter.)
It’s true that overly alcoholic wines are no fun to drink: they’re not great with food, they lack subtlety — and they can make for an unpleasant morning after. But I wonder if people are making too much of the matter, with a slightly obsessive focus on the alcohol percentage number. That number can be helpful, but fixating on it can be misleading. Context, as they say, is all. Last week, I opened up a 14.5% Rhône blend from California that hit you like a blunt instrument: it was dull, massive, and sure to cause a headache. It was an expensive wine, a gift, and I weirdly felt obligated to finish it. Drinking it (over the course of a few days, of course) felt like a chore. Tonight, however, I cracked open a 14.5% Rhône blend from Australia that had me wanting one more sip, then another, and yet another. Sure, it’s a big wine, but it wears its size well, and with elegance. It’s the difference between:
I’m all for less of the former and more of the latter, but it’s the artistry and the effort, not the number, that makes the difference.
Want to get a serious wine lover’s knickers in a twist? Just ask him what he thinks of the 100-point scoring system. Nothing is quite so controversial — and ubiquitous — as the 100-point scale. Popularized by Robert Parker, the World’s Foremost Wine Critic or the Scourge of the Wine Industry, depending on whom you talk to, Parker had the clever idea to rate wines according to the 100-point system. This grading tool, familiar to anyone who’s ever passed through the American school system, has guided many a wine shopper — and pissed off more wine professionals that you can imagine.
Look, I don’t pay any attention to Parker points. I find the people who follow him slavishly a little off-putting. But my occasional annoyance at Parker and his acolytes is dwarfed by my chagrin at people who love nothing more than to complain about him. Why so much rage, you guys? It makes me make feel like I need to defend the 100-point system. So here’s my attempt to refute the most popular anti-Parker arguments:
1. Wine is beautiful, magical, transcendent, something so special that it can not be reduced to a mere number. I love wine. I have had my share of magical experiences around great bottles that count among the happiest moments of my life. But for most of us, wine is an enjoyable beverage. The vast majority of consumers who don’t know a ton about wine are looking for a good bottle that won’t break the bank, and, every so often, a splurge that lives up to its price tag. If the 100-point scale system is helpful in those pursuits, who am I to judge? The world of wine is vast and diverse, and there’s enough room for those of us who take it very seriously, and those of us who just want to have a good time. Imagine if the movie industry operated the same way. It would be like going around to people waiting in line to buy tickets to Eat, Pray, Love, telling them they are boors for seeing the movie just because their local critic gave it three-and-a-half stars, all while waving the latest issue of Cahiers du Cinéma in their face.
2. Robert Parker is evil. Therefore, the 100-point scoring system is evil. If I remember correctly from my 10th grade ethics class, this is what’s called an ad hominem argument. Attacking the man instead of the issue at hand. If we only read books, watched movies, or embraced innovation and technology created by likeable people, the structure of our DNA would be undiscovered, the iPhone wouldn’t exist, and our only entertainment would be an endless loop of Sandra Bullock movies on TBS. (Although don’t get me wrong, I love Sandra Bullock.) This argument is illogical, annoying, and childish. Next.
3. I’m OK with assigning numerical scores to wine, but the 100-point scale is arbitrary. This is the most reasonable of all the arguments out there, even though I don’t quite buy it. Yes, the 100-point scale is imperfect, and damned if I know the difference between a 91 point one and a 92 point one. There’s a certain Scholastic “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” nature to a 100-point scale, but that arbitrariness is inherent in any grading or evaluation system. Does the fact that it’s numerical annoy people? Or does 100 seem like too large a range, in which case does that make Jancis Robinson’s 20-point system only 1/5th as stupid?
4. The 100-point-scoring system is the Worst Thing to Ever Happen to Wine in the United States, if not the WORLD. This is my favorite. We should be so lucky! I can think of plenty of things that are much worse for the wine industry. Insane wine mark ups at restaurants. The U.S.’s anti-consumer three-tier distribution system. French wine subsidies. Anti-alcohol crusaders. Confusing labeling laws. Shall I go on?
5. The 100-point system is the reflection of one man’s tastes. This one is pretty accurate. It’s no secret what kind of wines Robert Parker likes (big, bigger, and biggest), and that he’s not one for subtlety. But I don’t think that’s a huge problem, and here’s why. First, he’s representative of the American palate overall. Yes, we eat too much artificially flavored, oversweetened crap that has wreaked havoc on our taste buds and makes us crave more flavor, more sweetness, more stimulation, more, more, more. But as Americans, we have access to a greater variety of good, intensely flavored food from around the world than pretty much anyone else in the universe. Inhabitants of even a moderately sized U.S. city can probably find some good Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian and BBQ within half an hour of their homes–not something you can say about the average European. (But if anyone can tell me about some great Vietnamese and soul food joints in Rennes, Turin, or Stuttgart, I’m all ears.) I’d argue that all of these cuisines can work well with bold flavors, so we’re not morons for gravitating towards these big wines.
Second, the problem with Parker’s palate isn’t its existence, but its primacy. Since the 1980s, his palate has been the only one that’s mattered, and the 100-point scale has been the dominant wine rating point of reference. His stamina and talent for self-promotion, among other characteristics, have kept him on top and made it tough for other voices, palates, and evaluation systems to emerge.
But this is America, gosh darn it. We don’t wring our hands about the other guy’s success. We tip our cap, come up with something better, and work our butts off to steal market share away from him. This is actually happening, albeit incrementally. Wine bloggers are gaining a little traction, although probably not as much as we’d like to think. Some folks are doing interesting stuff with wine badges. Wine retailers are working harder to educate their customers, writing their own shelf talkers instead of relying on Parker points, offering more tastings, and organizing their selections around what foods to match them with or their taste profiles. Olive Garden, the restaurant chain that sells more wine than any other in the U.S., lets patrons try wine for free and organizes its wines by flavor profile, with nary a Parker score in sight. Granted, I don’t eat at the Olive Garden and this is a boring list, but it’s well priced, with accessible wines that probably complement the food they serve.
These may be baby steps, but they’re definitely steps. The quality and variety of wine available right now on the U.S. market in unparalleled. Is the 100-point scale the ideal way to get consumers to drink the best, and most varied, selection of wine out there? Of course not. But let’s move on. Give the guy his due and come up with something better.
Eric Asimov’s recent article about sommeliers who taste wine before serving has sparked a lot of discussion in the wine blogo/Twittersphere. The practice doesn’t bother me, but the piece, and the reaction it provoked, got me thinking a lot about my sommelier pet peeves. First let me say that the majority of my encounters with sommeliers have been positive. I know it’s not an easy job, and I appreciate the effort, skill, and training required. But. There are some exceptions, and I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences. And when things do go bad, it usually plays out a little something like this:
Hi there. Yes, I’m talking to you, gangly guy in your early 30s with the interesting glasses on. Could I get a little help over here with the wine list? I have some questions. Yes, the woman at the table is ordering the wine! Crazy, I know. Yeah, I saw the look of surprise on your face when my husband handed me the wine list. Anyway, speaking of the wine list, you dropped the list off quickly, with a few perfunctory words, before rushing off to another table. Specifically, that table of guys sipping on their super-Tuscans, so I didn’t have time to ask you about your wine program. Do you feature wines from a certain region, or made from a certain variety, because the chef thinks they bring out the best in his food? Are you serving something new by the glass this week? I’d love to know. Actually, I’d love for you to tell me. The host, busboys, and servers have all been lovely so far, and your inattentiveness stands out like a sore thumb.
So. I wanted to ask you about this Sagrantino di Montefalco. I’ve had a few I’ve enjoyed, but I’m not familiar with this particular one. Can you tell me anything about it? Also, I’d love it if you could pronounce the name correctly. I’m not asking you to be fluent in Italian or even to have a decent accent, but if you could at least not add syllables that aren’t there, or omit ones that are, that would be great. If I dig this wine and want to order it again or purchase it at retail, I’d love to be able to say it right. And, I confess, another reason I’m asking about the Sagrantino is to telegraph that I know a little something about wine. That’s so you won’t automatically steer me towards a wine you think I’ll be comfortable with because it has a familiar name or a middle-of-the-road flavor profile. Sure, I could tell you about my wine qualifications, but this is a date, not a job interview, and I’d rather engage you in a little conversation. Word to the wise: women are less likely to brag about their knowledge than men are. Yes, I know, it’s our responsbility to speak up. But the upside is, we’re much less apt to “demonstrate [our] hubris and wine knowledge like a rooster strutting before a cockfight.” So take a deep breath. Relaxed? Great. Now look me in the eye, smile, and try not to look bored.
And when I ask you to tell me about the wine, please lead with how it tastes and will match with the food. Right now, I don’t care about the yeast strain used, the history of winemaking in Umbria, or the producer’s stance on globalization. If I like what I hear, great–I’ll order it and then you can share a fun factoid or interesting story. And if I’m not feeling it, let’s work together to find something else in the same price range. I promise to be specific about my likes and dislikes, if you promise not to just randomly point to a wine that’s $40 more expensive and say “that’s good, too.”
Once that fun is over, I’m sure you’ll do a competent job of presenting the wine to me, pouring it, and making sure our glasses are adequately filled throughout the meal. But I’m not sure that you’ll ask me how I like the wine, if it’s working well with what we’re eating, or see if I have any more questions. I understand that you don’t want to be intrusive, but the rest of the staff here manages to strike that perfect balance of warmth and professionalism–why can’t you? Did you miss that day? If I say I really like this wine, could you maybe write it down for me? Or even remove the label and give it to me at the end of the meal?* It’s the details and little courtesies that people remember. I can promise you that five years from now I won’t be able to recall what the food here tastes like, but if the server, say, brings us a second round of chocolates with our coffee because we couldn’t stop raving about them, I will never forget it.
I get it–your job is super-cool. You get to taste amazing wines and meet fascinating winemakers. You know what else you get to do? Serve me. Because, whether you like it or not, you are in the service profession. So stop treating me like a nuisance you have to deal with between the fun stuff you get to do. Clearly you know a lot about wine and love it, but that’s not enough. You have to know something about people, too.
*I’ve had sommeliers do this for me a few times at Gramercy Tavern and 11 Madison Park, and this kind of stuff is why I frequent Danny Meyer’s restaurants as often as my budget allows.