Spin The Basics

What I’ve Learned About Wine Since Moving to the Suburbs

I moved to Westchester two years ago. It’s been great for our kids, jury’s still out on how it’s working for the grown ups. One thing I can say for sure though is that it’s taught me a lot about wine. Not what’s in the bottle, but the context around it — how people drink wine and what they think about it, outside the very insulated community of Manhattan and what a friend calls the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” areas of Brooklyn.

 

Some thoughts so far:

 

Wine in many suburban restaurants = disappointing. More often than not, the selection is boring, the pricing unjust, and the wine service non-existent. One local place that calls itself a wine bar — as in, the name of the place actually includes the phrase “wine bar” — doesn’t list the producers on its wine list. Make fun of people all you want for always drinking the same Malbec or Sancerre, but they’re not wrong to be risk-averse. The odds of being disappointed and feeling ripped off if they try something new are high.

 

Wine retail, on the other hand, is kind of awesome. I’ve found more than a few great stores, and great prices, in the most unlikely places. One of my favorites, the Wine + Spirit Discount Warehouse, sits next to a Salvation Army in a sad New Rochelle strip mall. Walk past the aisles of Alize and Mike’s Hard Lemonade and you’ll find a good selection or wines at a steal — if Wine Searcher is to be believed, it’s the cheapest place to pick up wines from Kermit Lynch’s portfolio in lower Westchester. My local store, Blue Dog Wines, is a little gem. It’s a tiny space filled with crowd pleasers, a few esoteric finds and IPOB-approved Pinots. Full disclosure: the owner is helping me out with my latest wine project, a local Facebook group page where I lead an online tasting every few weeks. It’s young yet, but lots of fun.

 

“Drink local” means something else entirely. When it comes to wine selection, people really are beholden to the skill and tastes of the wine stores and restaurants in their immediate vicinity. (Yes, people order wine online, but shipping can be an expensive deterrent, plus wine.com is no help when you need to run out and buy some Prosecco for your neighbor’s dinner party starting in 45 minutes.) The universe of wine is vast and thrilling, but you’d never know it if your local wine store stocks the same boring bottles year after year.

 

The wine industry is insanely out of touch with how most people actually choose and consume wine. Do a better job telling people what the thing tastes like and give them a good story to hang their hat on. Stop with the overly precious food matching. No one is drinking your $15 Pinot Noir with game. They’re drinking it to accompany a burger or leftovers or an episode of Scandal. Get over it.

 

I will never stop being amazed by the smart questions I get from people who think they don’t know “enough” about wine. Sometimes the “average wine drinker” (whatever that means) is a lot smarter and more adventurous than they’re given credit for.

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The Fine Art of Spitting

Now that I’m pregnant, this seems like a good time to talk about spitting. It’s a necessity for me these days … so I’m constantly reminded how bad I am at it. Frankly, I’m a bit of a dribbler. Plus my aim isn’t all that good. And it’s not for lack of trying. For my diploma classes and study sessions, spitting was a must. (Although there were a few late harvest Rieslings, ports and single malts that I just couldn’t bear to spit. Plus if I’m being honest, I didn’t do much spitting during Rhone, Rioja or Ribera sessions, either. The quality of Bordeaux and Burgundy they poured for us was, sadly, quite spit-worthy.)

But it’s not a skill that comes easily to me. Not enough practice spitting watermelon seeds as a child, maybe? My brothers all played baseball and chewed tobacco, so there was certainly lots of spitting going on my midst, but I never studied their form that closely. I can do a decent spit take, but the prevailing ethos there is diametrically opposed to the rules of wine expectoration — the point of the spit take is to spray liberally, messily, and with comic effect.

For me, the challenge of spitting is applying just enough force.  Spit too hard and you’re dealing with a seriously unpleasant backsplash situation. Not hard enough, and there’s a little rivulet of red snaking down your chin. As with too many things in life, I’ve erred on the side of timidity — hence the dribble factor. Well no more! I’m about to a parent, and what child wants her mom to be a weak wine spitter?

Therefore, I’ve decided to use my drinking hiatus to improve my spitting proficiency. I will devote the rest of my pregnancy to mastering the art of spitting. (Plus eating right, getting lots of rest, learning how to take care of these things once they arrive, blah, blah, blah.)

I’m starting off with some research, which I’ll gladly share. There are various schools of thought on the matter.
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Is There Such a Thing as a “Wine Genius”?

The other day I got an email from the folks at something called the Everyday Genius Institute. Would I, they wanted to know, be interested in reviewing a video called “Think Like a Genius Wine Master”? Would I ever. And not just because I love getting free stuff (although I kinda do). I wanted to see the video because I was curious to see how they defined a “Genius Wine Master”–and wanted to know if it was possible to think like one. I’ve met a lot of people who are very, very smart about wine. They usually fall into one of the following categories:

The tasting prodigies. These are people who are absolutely brilliant tasters. They can detect faults with a single sniff, excel at blind tastings, and have astounding recall of every wine they’ve ever tasted. The rarest of all breeds, but definitely the showiest.

The walking encyclopedias. No grape variety is too obscure, no corner of the wine-producing world is too hidden for these wine scholars. Impossible to stump, they are rarely shy about sharing their vast knowledge.

Uber-specialists. In the tradition of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, these folks know one big thing. Often, the one big thing they know is Italy, which seems to inspire more specialists than any other nation. (And who could blame them?)

Varsity bullshitters. Alas, the most common of all wine smarties. Bluster and confidence can carry you very far in some wine circles. This is what happened to that guy in your AP English class who never seemed to read anything but still managed to get a 5 on the exam.

The master senseis. Next to the tasting prodigies, these peeps are the toughest to find. They’re incredibly gifted at sharing what they know in a way that excites, educates–and doesn’t intimidate–the beginner. This is the kind of wine intelligence that I’m trying very hard  to cultivate–and that I’d like to see more of in the wine world.

The “Genius Wine Master” at work in this video — Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser — is probably a combination of the tasting prodigy and the master sensei. There’s some truly helpful stuff here, with a comprehensive breakdown of see/smell/sip, as well as a useful disclaimer that context (where you’re tasting, and who you’re tasting with) has a big impact. The advice to make a mental collage of what you’re tasting, picturing fruits and spices and the like in your mind’s eye, makes a lot of sense for visual learners. At $50, it seems a bit steep for information you could find for $20 in a book (or for $0 online) but if you like video learning and don’t mind throwing money at this problem, you could do worse.

My only real objection to the video is the name. I don’t know what a “wine genius” is. As I tried to show above, I think there are different kinds of “wine intelligence,” but the idea of genius when it comes to wine seems facile,  somehow too lofty and too limiting all at once. (The other topics of genius study? Getting straight As, sales, and copywrighting.) When I think of a “genius,” I think of either someone who famously deserves the label–say, Einstein–or else someone who has an extremely specific, limited skill, as in “that guy’s a genius at fixing up old Vespas.” (No offense to Vespa mechanics. Or Einstein.)

What I don’t think of is someone who has devoted countless hours to the endlessly rewarding–and occasionally frustrating–pursuit of understanding what happens when grapes become something else entirely. What do you call that? Passionate amateur? Wine-crazed fool? I’ll take those over “genius” any day.

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If You Like Giorgio, You’ll Love Riesling

Remember those old Designer Imposters “perfume” ads from the 80s? If you like Giorgio, you’ll love…

I always think of those whenever I’m chatting with someone who’s new to wine. I mean, really new to wine, as in “I’ve had wine a few times and think I like it…but am not sure what to try next. How do I know what I like?” If you haven’t tried a lot of wines, it’s tough to get your bearings. To tell a newbie that something takes a little like a Carneros Chardonnay means nothing if you’ve never had a Carneros Chardonnay. Instead, I quiz them about what other beverages they prefer. That way, if they tell me they like Tang, I know they’ll love…well, actually, I don’t know anyone who likes Tang. And frankly I have no idea what the wine equivalent would be. But here are some other ones that are much easier to translate:

Lemonade: Easy–German Riesling, which has that same perfect tension between tart and sweet.

Black tea: Tannic, bitter, and a little earthy, it’s the ideal gateway beverage to Barolo, Barbaresco, or pretty much anything else made from Nebbiolo

Black coffee: Syrah, especially from the Northern Rhône. In my favorite Syrahs I always get lots of coffee notes.

Coke: Rioja. Aging in American oak creates all kind of vanilla and spice notes, hallmarks of the taste of Coca-Cola.

Any Starbucks variation on a theme of coffee and chocolate: Ripe, rich California Merlot with a ton of mocha notes.

Cranberry juice: Pinot Noir (outside of Burgundy), Dornfelder, Gamay. Anything with bright, tart, red fruit.

Water: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)


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The Tastemaker: Filipinas, Papayas, and Training Your Palate

Drinking wine is easy. Tasting it is hard. That’s why I’m introducing The Tastemaker, an occasional STBNY series about the challenges, pleasures and mysteries of wine tasting.

One of the best wine tasters I’ve ever met is from the Philippines. One the face of it, that doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting statement.

But think about it for a second.

Even if you’ve never been to the Philippines, you could probably guess what kind of fruits and vegetables grow there. Coconut, pineapple, banana, mango, squash, taro, bamboo shoots, okra…the usual tropical suspects. And the Philippines being an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you might imagine it would be tough and expensive to import fruits and vegetable that don’t grow there. So if you’re living in the Philippines, most of what you eat probably comes from the Philippines.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some recent Daily Wine Picks from The Wine Spectator:
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Better Know a Grape: Bonarda

I like to tell people that wine isn’t as complicated as it’s made out to be. And that’s usually the case … except, of course, when it’s not.

Take, for example, Bonarda. Several different grape varieties are known by this name, but chances are if you see the word “Bonarda” on the label, you’re drinking a wine that’s not made from Bonarda at all.

I know. I know. Let me ‘splain: there’s “Bonarda” from Italy and “Bonarda” from Argentina. Three different grapes go by the name “Bonarda” in Italy. There’s the Bonarda that’s planted in north central Italy, particularly the Oltrepò Pavese and Colli Piacentini regions. That’s actually the Croatina grape. (If you see the word “Bonarda” on the label of an Italian wine, you’re likely drinking one of these wines.) Then there’s the Bonarda that’s planted in Piedmont, in northwest Italy, that’s really the Uva Rara variety. Finally, there’s the real, and very rare, McCoy: Bonarda Piemontese (also, somewhat obviously, from the Piedmont region). As you can probably guess, nomenclature in the wine world can be imprecise, and nowhere more so than in Italy.

Now for “Bonarda” from Argentina, which you’re much more likely to see at your local wine store.
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Better Know a Grape: Viognier

I’m taking a step back from my last très recherché BKAG selection, Savagnin, and choosing a more mainstream variety this time. Viognier is the finest white wine grape of the Rhône, and as such doesn’t exactly keep a low profile. It’s gone through phases of semi-trendiness here in the U.S., but has never quite taken off.

It’s understandable. The wines are rarely cheap. The word is hard to pronounce (Vee-o-NYAY, for a rough approximation). And the flavor profile isn’t an obvious sell for people who like their whites crisp and refreshing. These are wines with meat on their bones. The aromas are rich and honeyed, and what the wines may lack in acidity, they make up for in body and alcohol. The relatively low acidity of Viognier means it’s never going to be my absolute favorite variety of all time. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for acidity.

Viognier shines in the northern Rhône, particularly in the tiny Condrieu appellation. The small size of Condrieu, as well as the difficulties of growing this grape (its yields are low) help to explain the high prices these wines fetch. Fun fact: Viognier can also be blended with Syrah to create the powerful, intense red Côte Rôtie wines that are close to my heart–a very, very rare example of white variety being allowed in a red wine.

There are also some good Viogniers stateside, from California and Virginia in particular. This 2007 Praxis Viognier ($20) from Lodi, in California’s hot and sunny Central Valley, is one example. (Full disclosure: this wine is carried by wine importer/wholesaler Todd Wernstrom of Ice Bucket Selections, an avid STBNY commenter and newish Twitter friend. Todd recommended that I try the wine, which I paid for myself.) The Praxis, which is a side project from Napa Cabernet specialist Bill Arbios, has a pretty golden cast, a distinctive feature of the grape. The nose is orange-blossom honey and grapefruit, with a hint of musky fruitiness too, a little like unfiltered apple juice. There’s more honey on the palate, plus some apricots (a tell-tale sign of the grape), as well as some almonds on the lengthy finish. The wine is fermented entirely in stainless steel, which provides some welcome restraint. (Fermenting the wine in oak barrels would make the wine more unctuous — and increase the price.) It’s full-bodied, and it wears its 13.6% alcohol well enough. This an unabashedly pretty wine, and one that would go nicely with, say, scallops in cream sauce or a pseudo-Moroccan chicken dish with dried fruits, nuts and cinnamon. I opened this wine on a Thursday night and it tasted just as good when I pulled it out of the fridge on Monday evening. In part because it’s sturdy enough to hold up nicely for a few days, but also because after a weekend of tasting racy, high-acid and light-bodied Finger Lakes Rieslings, this full-bodied, lush wine was just the ticket.

One final fun fact: Viognier is the sole grape allowed in Château-Grillet, one of the only French appellation that consists of a single wine estate.

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Better Know a Grape: Savagnin

There’s obscure, and then there’s obscure. Tannat and Petit Verdot, subjects of my two previous BKAG installments, are a little random, but in terms of insider cult status, they don’t hold a candle to Savagnin.  (And no, that’s not a typo for “Sauvignon” — the grape is actually called Savagnin.) This white wine grape makes its home in the kind of landscapes where you would expect to catch a glimpse of Heidi yodeling and milking a cow: the French and Swiss Alps. The Savagnin-based wines you’re most likely to see in the U.S. — although, sadly, you’re not likely to see very much of them — hail from the Jura, in eastern France.
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Wine, Art, and The Importance of Focus

Sorry for the lofty title, but it’s been a culturally edifying few days here at STBNY. On Sunday I went to the Metropolitan Museum for the first time in ages and on Monday, we saw our friend Marco (he of the Château d’Yquem) perform in an opera at the Hayden Planetarium. Delightful experiences both, they got me thinking about — what else? — wine. Specifically, about the importance of paying attention.

Whether you’re at the symphony, in a room full of Rembrandts, or even watching a baseball game, it’s way too easy to let your mind wander. You start out with the best of intentions, but before you know it, your head is somewhere else–you’re thinking about organizing your receipts, whether you need to buy more Brita filters, what to delete from your Netflix queue. We get easily overwhelmed. A great solution is to just focus on one thing. What the cellist is doing, the artist’s knack for capturing an expression of wry amusement, or, yes, the way that wine smells exactly like mushrooms.*

Sometimes if you try to take everything in, it just becomes too much. By isolating one fact, or one sensation, you’re able to really get what’s going on. So the next time you’re feeling undue pressure to Appreciate a Wine — whether that pressure comes from a waiter, your wine geek friend, a favorable review from a critic, or, God forbid, me — take a deep breath, block out the noise, and think about one thing only. It could be anything: the color of the wine, how it feels in your mouth, the fact that it reminds you of cherry cough syrup. Keep it in your sights as you continue to taste and drink the wine. Does the wine taste more or less like cherry cough syrup as time goes on? Has that flavor melded into another one, say, strawberry jam? Or freshly laid tar? There’s often so much going on in a glass of wine — and in our own heads when we’re trying to evaluate it — that this helps to quiet the noise. Our own expectations (“I’m supposed to love this!” “I’m never going to understand wine!”) can be our own worst enemies. Beginners are most susceptible to this, but even people who have been tasting and studying wine for years (ahem) are not immune. Try it — and tell me what you think.

*Note: these analogies do not mean I think that wine is art. Wine is many wonderful, beautiful things, but it is not art. A topic for another post.

A final programming note: don’t forget that this Friday is the deadline for the ZAP Zinfandel tasting giveaway! Submit your haikus, people!

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The Right Temperature(s) for Serving Wine

What with the frigid weather in New York, I’ve been thinking a lot about temperature lately. Wine, like people, wants to live within a narrow temperature range. I often get questions about the right temperature for wine storage, but the more pressing question for most of us is the ideal temperature for serving wine. Too cold, and the flavors are muted; too warm, and the alcohol runs roughshod on your palate. This is one of the reasons why I avoid drinking wine at bars — a bottle of white straight from the fridge, or a bottle of red at overheated bar temp do not make for pleasant drinking experiences.

Yes, white wine should be cold — but probably not as cold as you think. A good rule of thumb is to take the bottle out 10-20 minutes before you’re going to drink it, depending on the kind of wine. (The one exception here is sparkling wine, which is at its brightest and bubbliest right out of the refrigerator.) Crisp, high acidity, lighter bodied wines that are all about refreshment — Sauvignon Blancs or northern Italian whites, for example — are better on the cooler side, say from 45-50 degrees. Heavy chilling is also a great way to mask flavors in case you’re stuck with a mediocre bottle. Fuller bodied wines like California Chardonnay, white Burgundy, or whites from the northern Rhone show best when they’re a bit warmer, for example between 55-60 degrees. Cold mutes smells and flavors, and since these wines aren’t intensely aromatic, they need to be warmed up a bit to show off their character. Feel free to cup the wine glass in your hands and swirl to warm up the wine if it still seems a little shy.

For reds, try sticking them in the fridge 10-20 minutes before drinking. This is especially important in winter, when many of us crank up the heat. The idea of serving a red wine at room temperature comes from an era when room temperature was closer to 65 than the toasty 75 or so where we like to keep the thermostat now. As with whites, lighter, higher acidity wines, like Beaujolais, a lot of Loire reds, Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Lagrein, Zweigelt and the like, really shine when they’re cool, as in 60 degrees or so. More complex and tannic wines taste better when they’re a bit warmer, closer to 65 degrees.

With both the whites and the reds I encourage you to play around with this. Experiment, and see what temperature makes the wine tastes best. And by temperature, I mean time in or out of the fridge. No need to invest in one of those wine thermometers — I usually discourage people from buying fussy wine accoutrements. One of the few exceptions: a temperature controlled cellar unit if, like me, you don’t have a cool place for long-term wine storage. And by cool I mean somewhere in the range of 50-60 degrees.

And, finally, a temperature-related programming note: I’ll be in Puerto Rico in vacation next week. It’s my goal to do a video or two while I’m there, including a mini tasting tutorial, but expect the pace of posting to be light.

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