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In Defense of the 100-Point Scoring System. Kind Of.

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.

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Italian Wine Week: The Final Chapter

Italian Wine Week ended on a strong note. (It also ended a week ago, so I’m taking a very Italian approach to deadlines here. What can I tell you, it’s August.)

I rebounded from my disappointment with the Lupi Le Braje and cracked open a bottle of Lini Lambrusco ($14.99) Monday night. Full disclosure: I have had this wine before (“isn’t that cheating?” my husband asked with raised eyebrow as I popped the cork). Yes, OK, so sue me. I wanted a sure thing–and I wanted to smile. Because it’s impossible to drink this wine without smiling. A fizzy red with bright cherry and strawberry aromas, and more than a touch of earthiness, this wine is incredibly easy to like. The bubbles + substantial acidity have a way of working up one’s appetite, and I’m confident I could conquer even the most daunting plate of salumi with this Lini by my side. This is a terrific, casual red for summer.

Tuesday night I went in for a more refined, but no less satisfying, wine experience at dell’Anima.
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Italian Wine Week IV: 2005 Lupi “Le Braje”

Another day, another region, another variety. This time we’re heading northwest from Abruzzo clear on over to Liguria. The grape, completely new to me, is Ormeasco. It’s a local variant on Dolcetto, which hails from Piedmont, inland and north of the Ligurian coast. And the wine is the 2005 “Le Braje” from Lupi ($19.99) a family-owned operation in western Liguria that has earned my gratitude by creating a comprehensive Web site in English. (Granted, I’ve been drinking some fairly obscure wines, but it has been tough to find good information about my Italian Wine Week selections on the Webs so far.)

I’m of two minds about this wine. The nose was incredibly compelling–earthy, dark, with a little leather and black cherry too. It bears no resemblance to any Dolcetto I’ve ever had, which usually feature more accessible, bright aromas. There’s a slight barnyard thing as well. (That means manure, for those who aren’t familiar with this tasting euphemism.) But on the palate, well, there just wasn’t enough “there” there for me. There were some bitter notes up front, which I actually really enjoyed, but then the mid-palate and finish just fell away. I wondered if the fruit had just dried up, as Dolcetto usually produces wines that are meant to be drunk young. But Ormeasco can apparently give more robust and longer-lived wines than its Piedmontese sibling, and the 2005 is, as far as I can tell, the most release. I’m assuming then that this is just the style. Sadly, it’s not the style for me.

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Italian Wine Week III: 2009 Torre dei Beati Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo

One of my biggest wine writing pet peeves is comparing a wine to a woman. And not just any woman. It’s never “this Pinot Grigio reminds me of my middle school lunch lady” or “that Merlot is a dead ringer for my dad’s third wife, the one who collected Lladró and bred Bassett hounds.” No, it’s always some woman who is mysterious and elegant, naïve…yet precocious, docile and tempestuous all at once. Do you know any women like this? I sure as hell don’t. These comparisons offer much more insight into the psyche and relationship history of the wine writer than they do into the wine itself. Seriously guy, I have no way of knowing what your personal fantasies and anxieties are about the fairer sex, so incorporating them into your tasting notes is totally unhelpful to me–and to anyone else who’s not you.

That’s why I am going to  compare this 2009 Torre dei Beati Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo ($16.99) to a well-known woman, one who should be familiar to even the most casual student of early 21st century American film: Elle Woods, heroine of Legally Blonde.

First, there’s the color. I’d call this something between dark Barbie-pink and light cherry. “Cerasuolo” refers to a category of deeply colored, often fairly intense Italian wines that are somewhere between rosé and red.

Here’s a picture. Apologies that the lighting and glass don’t quite do it justice. We brought this over to a friend’s place, and I didn’t want to make a whole production about photography.

Just as Elle’s wardrobe choices made it impossible for anyone to take her seriously–who could forget when she shows up to her first law school party wearing a Playboy bunny costume?–the color of this wine practically screams frivolity.

Then there’s the aroma, which I can only describe as perfumed. Sticking my nose in the glass was like smelling a bouquet of flowers, with roses front and center. I was reminded of the scene where Elle passes her pink and perfumed resume along to her law school professor and soon-to-be swain Luke Wilson. “I think it gives it that extra something!” she says of the scent and really, who are we to disagree.

Based on first impressions, we’re expecting something inconsequential, dumbed-down and even cloying. But anyone who’s well-versed in Hollywood conventions (or the winemaking of Torre dei Beati, a small, organic estate, as well as the high-quality potential of the Montepulciano grape) knows what will happen next.

It turns out–suprirse!–that this wine is far from lightweight. There’s some real tannic structure here, as well as good acidity. Yes, there’s a touch of sweetness too, but nothing overwhelming. Ripe red fruits–strawberries in particular–are matched with a little earth and minerality. Just as Elle ultimately shows her smarts and prevails, with highlights and manicure intact, this wine manages to be charming and serious at once. And just as our heroine must hold her ground against any number of challenges, from a lecherous professor to catty classmates to lying witnesses, this wine can stand up to a lot. Tomato and mozzarella? Sure. Grilled chicken? Absolutely. Barbecue? A platter of cured meat and cheese? Why not.

So I invite you to pick up a bottle, pair it with pretty much anything that goes down easy on a hot late summer day, and raise your glass to toast the twin delights of Cerasuolo and Reese Witherspoon.

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Italian Wine Week II: 2008 Gran Sasso Pecorino

For day 2 of Italian Wine Week, I made the switch from red to white. (It’s hot here down the shore, people. I’m really glad I didn’t decide to dedicate this week to drinking more Port or Zinfandel.) I also moved from Piedmont to Abruzzo, in east-central Italy, abutting the Adriatic. The wine in question here is a 2008 Gran Sasso Pecorino IGT Terre di Chieti ($15.99). A little parsing here: Terre di Chieti is a sub-region of Abruzzo, and IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a designation for wines that fall outside of the more tightly controlled DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) system. It provides flexibility for producers who want to experiment, including tinkering with new–or old, in the case of Pecorino here–varieties. Like Ruchè in Piedmont, Pecorino is very much an old regional specialty, largely confined to Abruzzo and neighboring Le Marche. I’d love to tell you why the grape is named Pecorino and if it has something to do with the cheese, but I got nothing. (If anyone does have something, please write a comment and let me know.)

This wine surprised me right out of the gate. The color was a bit deeper and darker than I expected, lemon with a slightly golden cast. Toasted almonds, lime zest, and minerals featured heavily on the nose. Forgive the fancifulness here, but on some whites I get a smell I can only describe as wet slate paving stones on a hot summer day. (I told you it was fanciful.) I think it’s the combination of minerality + ripeness that does it for me. On the palate, this was verging on full-bodied, and the alcohol (13.5%) seemed a tetch high–not an observation I often make about Italian whites. This guy could stand up to a lot, like a heavily sauced fish dish, if you go in for that sort of thing, or a simple pork chop. In my case, I enjoyed it with this:

Yes, a turkey sandwich. (What can I tell you, I’m at the beach.)

Probably my favorite thing about this wine is that it would make an excellent “gateway drug” for Chardonnay lovers looking to expand their repertoire. There’s a lot to be said for lesser-known wines that offer a similar taste profile to more familiar ones. No one will ever go straight from drinking Clos du Bois Chardonnay every night to quaffing $100 bottles of Slovenian Ribolla Gialla. But turn them on to something that has a few of the qualities they like about Chardonnay–the full body, for example–and you’ll pique their curiosity. You’ll also save them a few bucks. While I’m sure you could find more complex and compelling examples of Pecorino, this wine is a pretty good value at $16.

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Italian Wine Week I: 2007 Cantine Sant’ Agata “‘Na Vota” Ruchè

Italian Wine Week got off to a rousing, if somewhat obscure, start last night with this 2007 Cantine Sant’ Agata “‘Na Vota” Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato ($19.99). This is my first encounter with Ruchè, a variety found in Piedmont, in the northwestern corner of Italy. It’s made in tiny quantities, primarily throughout a handful of villages not far from Asti. Piedmont is home to some serious red heavy hitters–most notably Nebbiolo, the grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as Barbera–so my first instinct was to feel sorry for poor little Ruchè.

But if this wine is any indication, Ruchè doesn’t need my pity. Or yours. It’s not a big wine in the conventional sense: ruby-colored, medium-bodied, with 13.5% alcohol stated on the bottle, the ‘Na Vota doesn’t exactly scream at you. But pay attention to the nose and the palate and there’s a lot going on, including dried herbs, dried orange peel and a whole lot of pepper. Like, a lot. There’s an underlying sharpness that reminds me of Cinsault, a French variety that’s commonly grown in the Languedoc. (Sorry, Italo-philes for the French connection…although there’s apparently a theory that Ruchè is descended from an unknown French import that was brought to Piedmont who knows when.)

I get some bitterness, too, beyond the regular astringency that comes with tannins. But there’s a chance that could just be my own prejudices talking. I believe that no one does bitter better than the Italians. There’s espresso, of course, as well as amari, the bitter digestivos that make the perfect end to an Italian feast. And do I even need to mention broccoli rabe, chicory, escarole, and any number of sharp, peppery greens?

I project this Italian=bitter theory on many Italian wines I taste. (I know, it’s patently ridiculous to generalize so broadly about a country’s wines, especially when that country has such a rich and varied winemaking tradition. It’s also ridiculous to spend $400 on a pair of shoes, root for the Mets, and enjoy the oeuvre of Mark Wahlberg, but that’s never stopped me from doing any of the above.) Of course, if I drank more Italian wines, I’m sure my thinking on the matter would be much more nuanced. But is it this perceived bitterness that keeps me from drinking more Italian wines? Hmm. A question to keep asking myself–and perhaps answer–as the week goes on.

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STBNY’s First Annual Italian Week

I have many annoying shortcomings. I don’t drive, can’t sing, and have no sense of direction, just for starters. But my most puzzling deficiency is the fact that I don’t drink Italian wine. I have no idea why this is. I love Italy. I eat a lot of Italian food. My husband and one of my best friends are both Italian-American. I live in Brooklyn, for God’s sake.

I’ve been thinking about this character flaw a lot lately. In the past few weeks, I’ve had two great dinners with people who know a hell of a lot about Italian wine. First, an epic tasting of some thought-provoking older wines at ‘Cesca. (Tasting notes to come, I promise.) Gregory del Piaz of Snooth supplied the bottles, PR guru/Italian wine blogger Susannah Gold hooked us up with the great table, and fellow bloggers Diane Letulle (Wine Lover’s Journal) and Eric Guido (The VIP Table) provided the excellent company. And last week, I met up with Susannah and Diane to fête Susannah’s birthday and score some heavily discounted Barbaresco at Accademia di Vino, where (awesome bargain alert!) white wines over $60 and red wines over $80 are 50% off on Monday nights.

These events have inspired me to remedy my shortcomings, at least temporarily. This week is STBNY’s First Annual Italian WeekTM wherein I will drink nothing but Italian wine. I’ve already selected an eclectic line-up of Italian whites, pinks, and reds, all priced under $20, to enjoy over the next seven days. I’ll be sharing my notes with you in the most timely fashion I can muster. I’m on vacation this week down the shore, and while I can think of no better place to drink Italian wine than New Jersey, beach time will take precedence over blogging time.

On that note, I leave you with a snapshot I took last night of Asbury Park–if you squint, the top of the carousel looks a little like the Duomo, no?

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Happy Bastille Day!

As my regular STBNY readers (all 4 of you!) know, I’m a Francophile. To paraphrase Chico Escuela, France has been bery bery good to me. I’ve had a lot of great food and wine there over the years, and the French have welcomed me into their homes, restaurants, vineyards–hell, even their school system–with graciousness, good humor, and Frenchy charm. In this era of “small plates” and wearing jeans to four-star restaurants, let us turn to France to guard the sanctity of the appetizer-main course-dessert trinity and dressing like grown-ups for dinner.

France is at its best when it manages to combine this old school adherence to tradition and standards with open-mindedness and energy. I thought of this a few weeks ago when Anne-Victoire Monrozier, aka Miss Vicky, stormed our shores with bottles of her father’s fresh, elegant Fleurie in hand.

I enjoyed the wine, but what really struck me was her aptitude for “le marketing” — not something that comes easily to a lot of smaller French winemakers. She traveled from Walla to Napa to the Lower East Side to promote the wine and deployed a truly impressive social media blitz. (Plus come on, how cute is this label?)

So Miss Vicky, I salute your embodiment of all my favorite French traits–and hope more and more of your compatriots follow your lead.

Santé!

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Hey, Sommelier–I’m Talking to You

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.

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Some Good Soaves for Summer

Quick, when I say “Soave” what do you think of?

Chances are, the next word that comes to mind is Bolla–as in, Bolla Soave, the cheap, neutral, and very successful Italian white that flooded our shores (and TV sets) in the 1970s. This wine’s commercial success and ubiquity have long associated Soave with mediocrity in the mind of many wine drinkers. That’s too bad. Some of these wines can be good, and many of them offer really nice value.

I recently had the chance to taste through 9 Soaves, largely from the 2008 vintage, thanks to a promotional event sponsored by the Soave consortium. You’ll see my tasting notes below–but first, a little context.

Soave comes from the Veneto region, in northeastern Italy. The main quality grape at play here is Garganega, although Trebbiano di Soave, Chardonnay, and Pinot Bianco are also allowed. The best Soaves, including those from the hilly, and higher quality, Soave Classico zone, will be primarily Garganega (and won’t include the bland Trebbiano Toscano variety).

Soave is difficult to pin down. It doesn’t have the aromatic over-the-topness of, say, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling. Nor does it have the rich, mouthfilling quality of an oak-inflected Chardonnay. At their best, these are subtle, elegant wines, with hints of citrus, minerality, and almonds. They’re rarely high in alcohol and match well with lighter fare, making them a good summer standby. At their worst, these wines are wallflowers. There’s just no there there — pale aromas and flavors and insufficient acidity — and tasting them can be as frustrating as trying to converse with a sullen teenager.

While Soave is never going to set my world on fire, there are some good wines here–the Inama and Gini in particular are worth seeking out.
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