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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.
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.
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?
Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific. While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.
I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.
And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California’s] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)
And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.
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.
In an amazing feat of self-deception, I got through my more or less wine-less pregnancy by telling myself I’d be back in full force once the boys were born. Well, nursing means I’m not doing much drinking these days. (Although I am doing a lot of eating. Good Lord, breastfeeding twins works up an appetite.) And it’s not like I have time for much leisurely wine drinking or tasting or blogging these days. Or much leisurely anything, for that matter.
However. When I got an invitation to meet Michel Chapoutier and taste his Bila-Haut wines two weeks ago, I simply couldn’t pass it up.
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