Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

I’m sure that everyone reading this post has encountered their share of simply impossible wine lists. The only surprise about them is that they are so numerous: I would have hoped that in these days of much expanded wine consciousness, simple, decent, appropriate wine lists would be everywhere. But no: bad lists are multiplying like Orcs in the Misty Mountains.

Some, of course, are preposterous because of price: We all know the scandal of American restaurant wine markups. Maybe even worse are those impossibly large, multinational lists that would require an hour to read through and would leave casual wine drinkers reeling in confusion and indecision. Maybe this flatters the restaurateur’s ego, but it’s one sure way to convince a lot of restaurant diners that wine just isn’t for them.

There is also the annoying list that never changes, and seems well adapted to the particular restaurant – except for the fact that the wines you would most want with its food are never available, although they are always listed. That really irks me. But of all the ways of screwing up a wine list,  the ones that bother me most are those that make the fundamental, unforgivable mistake of being inappropriate to the menu they are supposed to complement.

I encountered such a list during a recent flight from the city for some fresh air and quiet birding at Cape May, along the Jersey Shore. It jumpstarted this tirade.

One of the additional pleasures of Cape May is its abundance of fresh seafood, always a welcome closing to a day of walking in the fresh air and stalking the wily whimbrel. The biggest and best seafood restaurant in town always has a nice assortment of oysters, clams, and mussels; shrimp, scallops, and lobsters; and whatever fin fish are in season – as well as the rarely encountered snapper soup – good eating on fresh, local seafood simply prepared.

Oysters, soft-shell crabs, sea scallops

This establishment does a thriving business all year round, so you would quite reasonably expect it to have a strong white wine list, wouldn’t you? Ha! To borrow an ancient Sid Caesar line, I laugh on your nose.

The guilty party sports an extensive seafood menu, with a mere two steaks and two chicken dishes as its only regular non-seafood items. Nevertheless, its red wine list (mostly California Cabernet) is fully as long as its white list, which is just plain silly. That white wine list, in its entirety, consists of:

  • 4 California Sauvignon blancs
  • 6 (or is it 8? I’m working from memory) California Chardonnays
  • 1 sweet German Riesling
  • 1 Cavit Pinot grigio.

That comes to, in fact, just four white wine choices, two of which are not well suited to anything on the menu. Not a Chablis or a white Burgundy or even a simple Muscadet in sight. No Alsace or Rhône whites, no Bordeaux whites.

I won’t even mention the array of Italian white wines that are terrific companions to seafood that not only do not appear on the list but whose very names seem to be totally unknown to the staff. I know because I’ve asked. And the house will not allow you to bring your own bottle. This goes beyond silly and into uncivilized.

This is a lazy list – probably the wines of one distributor, or even of one glib salesperson. This simplifies the restaurateur’s life but does nothing for his clients. It’s not as if a restaurateur had to invest a fortune to create a competent list, especially for a seafood house, where the primary emphasis ought always to be white wines.

Here, for example, is a very concise list from Cull & Pistol, an unpretentious (especially for NYC) seafood restaurant attached to the fish store inside the Chelsea Market:

Now, that is not a thrilling list, but it is a well chosen one in that it covers the bases. The wines are all appropriate to accompany seafood, and they offer genuine geographic and varietal diversity. A California version of Muscadet, which is a classic companion to shellfish. A Loire Sauvignon blanc, which matches well with all sorts of fin fish. A crisp Spanish Albariño, which will do well with any seafood. A New York State dry Riesling, almost as versatile. An interesting Italian choice, a Sicilian Carricante, which should love lobster and crab. A good Chenin blanc, fine for fin fish. And to top the list, a Premier cru Chablis, which will match well with almost anything on the menu.

The most exigent wine bibber – me, for instance – can find several drinkable bottles here to complement his oysters and crab. Even if I were perverse enough to want a red wine, the modest pair that Cull & Pistol offers will work: a decent Beaujolais, and a New Zealand Pinot noir carry enough acidity to make them compatible with many seafood dishes. And these wines are all being offered at – for NYC – quite reasonable prices: most are $60 a bottle or less. Only the Burgundy tops that: The Chablis costs $84.

As I said, these selections aren’t thrilling, but they work, and they offer nice variety in a short list. Somebody gave some thought to putting this list together. In a wine-conscious town like New York, diners will notice that, and be grateful. I think they would on the Jersey Shore too.


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Sometimes the success of a dinner party depends not just on your planning and execution but also on your good luck. In the case I have in mind, a quite nice dinner was kicked up to another dimension of pleasure by the wines we served with it – wines from a mixed case that we had lost track of and had brought home from storage just a week or so before this occasion.

The dinner, arranged on necessarily short notice, was for two visiting out-of-town friends. We wanted to give them a good meal, of course, but one with familiar dishes that we could put together within the time and culinary resources we had available. We settled on a first course of pasta alla carbonara, which prepares and cooks easily; a main course of osso buco, which we could make up entirely in advance; a cheese course, which requires no work at all; and for dessert a simple apple tart, which Diane is always happy to toss together. A nice meal, but not extraordinary.

What made this dinner distinctive was its wine and food pairings. The first of these was made possible by Champagne originally bought for long-past holidays and the rest by that mixed case of wines that had luckily wended its way home just a week before.

Of course, I can and will claim that it wasn’t just luck that I had long ago purchased those wines. But I have to admit that their meshing so perfectly with the courses of this dinner was serendipity, far beyond the reach of cunning. From the 12 available wines, I’d chosen the 3 that I thought would work best with our dishes, but I couldn’t know how perfectly they would match up. I don’t have a super palate, and we all need a little luck sometimes.


Our first piece of good luck: For aperitifs, a fine grower Champagne, an NV “Élégance” from Vincent Couche. This mouth-filling, aptly named wine was biodynamically grown:  84% Pinot noir, 16% Chardonnay, with 3 years on the lees. It started our evening off on a properly savory and substantial note that relaxed all four of us from the week’s busy pace. Memo to self: Keep some of this around.


To give our first course a little distinction, we made the pasta alla carbonara with some duck bacon we had on hand (luck again) instead of the usual pancetta. This made for a richer but less assertively flavored dish that paired beautifully with a bottle of 2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. Volpaia’s high-altitude vineyards characteristically yield wines of great elegance and restraint, and this bottle proved to be a perfect, almost interlocking match with this more restrained version of carbonara.


Osso buco is always richly flavored: long-cooked veal shank on the bone creates a wonderful sauce around itself. But this is still veal, so it’s not an aggressive flavor but a mild, insinuating one. To my mind, this dish wants the gentle suaveness of Barbaresco, so I opted to match it with a 2004 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga, a beautiful wine from one of the greatest crus of the appellation, just – at 17 years – reaching its peak of mature, woodsy flavors.


With the cheeses, I went a different direction, with a slightly more assertive wine: a 2004 Château Lafon-Rochet, still from that case. Equally as old as the Barbaresco, this Saint Estèphe (55% Cabernet sauvignon, 5% Cabernet franc, 40% Merlot) had also evolved to a perfectly balanced state of maturity, which played splendidly with the somewhat battered-looking but still delicious remnants of goat, cow, and sheep cheeses we had on hand. Lafon-Rochet covers 100 acres in a single plot that lies between Lafite Rothschild and Cos d’Estournel. That’s a very nice neighborhood, as the excellent evolution of this wine amply showed.


The result of not-too-demanding cookery and wonderfully compatible wines was a dinner both guests and hosts loved. Because the interplay between the wines and the dishes brought out the best of both, the whole meal stood out as something special and memorable, making us very happy indeed. As Italian winemakers and chefs have drilled into my head, abbinamento – the matching of the food and the wine you serve with it – is everything. And if you love mature wines as much as I do, you need the luck or cleverness to have squirrelled a batch of them away years ago.

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For all regular newspaper and magazine columnists, a big feature about white and rosé wines for summer comes up routinely about this time of year. I always found such a story, when I was obliged to churn it out, burdensome and boring – and also misleading. What’s so different about the white wines one drinks in hot weather that marks them off from the whites one drinks all year round? And I think there is an underlying assumption here, that when the temperature rises one simply stops drinking red wine. This one doesn’t, especially not in these days of ubiquitous air conditioning.

Now, I grant that one’s eating habits change in summer – though even that is less so than ever, because of that same ubiquitous air conditioning. But they do change – more fresh fruits and vegetables, smaller, lighter meat portions, maybe more fresh fish, and so on. With those changes, the wines you drink should alter to maintain a pleasing match. So, for reasons of compatibility rather than temperature, you will probably move away from big, high-alcohol red wines and drink more light, modest-alcohol whites: that’s only common sense.

I guess the problem is that when it comes to wine, otherwise competent people lose all their common sense. Apparently, matching wine with food can come near to provoking a nervous breakdown, to judge from the number of crisis-toned articles devoted to the issue.

That, for example, was the premise of a recent big spread in the New York Times that tried hard to reassure the nervous that they could deal with this agonizing set of decisions. While I understand that Eric Asimov (a writer whose judgment and palate I respect) was trying to remove roadblocks to enjoying wine for many of his readers, I can’t help but feel that in the process he oversimplified somewhat.

I thoroughly agree that people shouldn’t worry about any so-called rules and may drink whatever they like, but I am very far from thinking that procedure will very often give you the best flavor combination of your wine and food. If maximizing your dining/drinking pleasure is what you’re after, you’re going to have to give your dinner wine a little more thought than by simply reaching for another bottle of old faithful or by making trial-and-error selections.

There most definitely are sound and useful principles that will help you make good choices. Asimov goes into some of these; I wish he had done so more forcefully. Most are – once again – common sense.

  • Balance fatty foods with acidic wines, which will cut through the fats and clean your palate.
  • Avoid heavily tannic wines with most foods: The tannins will obscure almost any other taste sensation.
  • And remember: Dinners are like boxing bouts. Don’t put lightweights against heavyweights. Balance is crucial if you don’t want either your wine or your food to wipe out its match mate.

None of these ideas is particularly esoteric, and they can help you with the kind of wine choices you make at any time of year, spring, summer, fall, or winter. No season holds any special problems, except for editors who want a “timely” story, whether it’s new or useful or not.

There are more such almost self-evident notions that will help guide your wine and food pairings. They’re not rules, just useful guidelines – a few principles to keep in mind while you’re thinking about whether your chicken cacciatore will match better with a Soave or a Chianti Classico. I even wrote a book about this “problem” many years ago, if anyone is curious. The Right Wine, I ironically called it (which taught me never to trust a reviewer’s ability to grasp irony.)

The Right Wine was a project that taught me a great deal about matching food and wine, and I’ve been working on that skill ever since. I’m happy to say that on looking at the book recently, I’ve found its principles still valid and useful, even if some of the particular examples it treats are dated. These handy little white and red wine wheels that I designed to illustrate some of those principles will give you a sense of what’s in it. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Neat, huh? As one of my favorite authors immodestly said on rereading his earlier works, “Gad, what a genius I had then!”

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Europeans say Bordeaux and Burgundy, Americans say Cabernet sauvignon and Pinot noir. That difference isn’t merely cultural – though no cultural difference is really mere – but in a sense ideological. It points to two different orientations to wine and the wine world.

I was reminded of this recently by an online article of Daniele Cernilli’s called “Beyond the Varietal.” This was not another rehash of stories about the meaning of terroir, but a reasoned argument about what matters in a wine besides its grape variety. Essentially, Cernilli argues that to speak of, say, Richebourg, as Pinot noir is to completely miss what is distinctive about that wine; and to talk only about, say, Nebbiolo, is to fail to understand what makes Barolo Cannubi great. Here, I’m less interested in that than in why the US makes so much of varietals.

There are complex reasons why Americans think of variety first, many of them deeply rooted in the brevity of our history with wine. As a nation, we have no tradition of wine drinking, save for a few exceptional individuals like Thomas Jefferson, who championed it. But such examples only tended to push wine drinking and wine knowledge further out of the mainstream and to isolate it as an aristocratic interest of the landed and wealthy.

This of course was intensified by the whole area of wine being so completely dominated, for so long, in the consciousness of English speakers, by French wines, all of which bore place names that conveyed no information, in a language that many Americans continue to find impenetrable and unpronounceable.

I think it is safe to say that wine in the US did not begin to take hold among the general population until non-aristocratic Italians and other southern Europeans began arriving here in significant numbers. We Americans who now love wine owe a huge debt to those once-looked-down-upon spaghetti joints, with their checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles. Those were probably the first wine bottles many Americans had ever seen. And drinking what had been in those flasks to accompany their “exotic” spaghetti and meatballs was probably the first experience of wine many of them had ever had. It’s important to remember that that world doesn’t lie very far in our past: It’s still relatively recent history.

The biggest part of American wine history of course belongs to California. How many of us remember when California produced Chablis, Chianti, Burgundy, and Rhine Wine – even Champagne? For a good many years, California marketed wines that way, until the fledgling European Union made ending that commercial appropriation of historic and important place names one of its chief goals.

That was when naming wines for the grape varieties that made them started to be the norm in America. It succeeded not just because it was the ethical thing to do, but largely because for a tyro wine drinking nation it was easier to learn and remember the names of a few grape varieties than all those European regional and town names. Varietal naming told you something about what was in the bottle that, unless you already knew a fair amount about wine, names like St. Julien or Chambolle-Musigny didn’t. And popular wisdom had it that connoisseur claptrap didn’t matter. Who cared who made the wine or where it was made? It was all Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir or Chardonnay, wasn’t it? (No prizes will be given for the correct answer to that question.)

That simplicity also greatly aided marketing, and it’s safe to say that marketing is king in America. You could order a glass of Chardonnay with your dinner, and for most people that was the end of it. You didn’t think about it, you had no opinion of it: It was safe and you hadn’t embarrassed yourself. Why complicate things by considering whether the wine was a good example of Chardonnay or not? What does that mean anyway? Besides, those who worried about whether they had gotten a good Chardonnay needed only to check its 100-point-scale score: Over 90 and you were gold.

You certainly didn’t want to complicate things further by worrying about where your Chardonnay was made: Napa? Sonoma? Paso Robles? Mendocino? North Fork? Finger Lakes? Where are those places? Who cares? My wine got 92 points from the Spectator and a whole paragraph of soft-core palatal porn from Parker:  I’m good. So what if it’s from a plot of land that until a few years ago grew scrub oaks and mesquite, and from a producer who until a few years ago was a roofing contractor? This is a brave new world, that has such markets in it.

And that of course is the point: Marketing is what it’s all about. Americans are not challenged to go beyond varietal in evaluating a wine because varietal is marketable, and knowledge and taste and judgement are not – unless you can articulate them numerically. How do you assign numerical value for 800 years of continuous grape cultivation in a single spot, dating back to Cistercian monks, or for generations of family winemaking? How many points is it worth for an Emperor to have had his troops salute a vineyard as they marched by? (There will be no prizes for the correct answers to these questions either.)

I know this sounds snobbish, but the inescapable fact is that anything that involves knowledge, let alone knowledge and taste, is snobbish. Oh, it’s true that in this country, some kinds of snobbery aren’t snobbish: We’ve all been bored to tears by a baseball or football super-statistician, or a micro-brewery maven, or by the person who knows everything that can be known about the Grateful Dead. Those lore lodes don’t involve too many foreign names, so they sound comfortably American – and they certainly don’t seem to imply that “you think you’re better than me,” which is what wine snobbery is considered to imply.

At bottom, I think it is that implicit non-egalitarian threat that has kept Americans wedded to grape varieties as their passport to wine, despite all the limitations of that approach. This may be changing, as more Americans do become more seriously engaged with wine, and as Europe, despite the best efforts of the EU, succumbs more and more to the attractions of mass marketing. Small European cheese makers have already felt the chilling effects of this process. Can wine makers be far behind? Probably not, so be a snob and enjoy it, while you still can. We may live to see the day when, to be sold in the US, St. Julien and Chambolle-Musigny and Barolo Cannubi will all have to be pasteurized. Absit omen.

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For any devoted Barolista, Alessandro Masnaghetti’s name is one to conjure with. Most people know him primarily for his amazing maps of the Piedmont wine zones (and other zones, both in Italy and elsewhere). These are not only visually stunning, detailed, and minutely accurate, but they incorporate as well a wealth of information about vineyard soils, exposures, ownership, and plantings. Each map amounts almost to a mini gazeteer of its zone – a treasure house of information for the thirsty Barolophile.

Masnaghetti has carved a very special place for himself in the Piedmontese wine world. Of all the wine writers I know or have dealt with, he is far and away the most deeply knowledgeable about Barolo in all its aspects – so the fact that he is now publishing a website devoted to Barolo should be exciting and welcome news to every fan of that great wine.

Barolomga360 it’s called, and you should have a look at your first opportunity. MGA, you remember, is the abbreviation of Authorized Geographic Mentions – the place names – whose use the Italian authorities permit on wine labels. Masnaghetti and his maps have been intimately involved with them from the very beginnings of the legislation. This website is a sort of culmination of that.

Like his maps, the site is handsome and filled with information – amazing information in some cases, such as two excellent winemakers making Barolo from the same vineyard and slope who have totally different views of the character of its grapes and consequently make two very different Barolos from it. Any other wine writer (and I include myself in this) would have made a major article about something like that: Masnaghetti just tucks it into his information about the vineyard. (I am deliberately not telling you which one, so you’ll read Masnaghetti’s notes attentively, as they deserve.) The excellent English translation is by the famed pioneer wine journalist Burton Anderson.

The most important features of the site are the multiple images of each commune, with its MGAs and other vineyard sites identified, so that you are able not just to read about but actually see the lay of the land – each different crease and fold of the hills that affects altitude and exposure, the proximity of each vineyard to others of equal or greater repute, or higher or lower altitude, or more easterly or westerly facing – all the kinds of information that real Barolo nuts (of which club I am a proud member) prize. Moreover, the images can be rotated and zoomed in or out, most with accompanying thumbnails focusing on views from different directions.

Here, with Masnaghetti’s permission, is a good example, one of his images of the Serralunga vineyards. Click on the image see a full-screen version.

There’s really no need for me to go on, except to tell you that only some parts of the site are available free. For full access to the whole site, you’ll have to subscribe.

It’s Masnaghetti, it’s maps, it’s Barolo: What more do you need to know? Enjoy. Esteem. Relish.

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Is Wine a White Whale?

Having reached an age where I spend far too much of my life in doctors’ offices, I notice that every time I go to a new one, whether it might be for a cold, or a sprain, or the plague, I am always asked “Do you drink?”

On the face of it, an innocuous question, perhaps even an idiotic one: Of course I drink. Everybody drinks, or we couldn’t survive. But that, obviously, isn’t what the question means: It means do you drink beer or wine or spirits, and it is patently a biased question, implying that it’s wrong to do so.

I’ve noticed that I’m never asked about my consumption of soft drinks, whose to-my-mind tooth-rotting amounts of sugar would seem to constitute a real health hazard. No, the question is only ever about consumption of liquids containing alcohol. “Ahoy! Have you seen a white whale?” Alcohol is clearly the Great White Whale of American medicine.

I have occasionally heard the question put more bluntly, in a way that exposes the underlying bias: Do you use alcohol? I try not to snicker at that: I don’t know anyone who uses alcohol. No, I do not use alcohol; I drink wine – a complex liquid, of which alcohol is usually just about 13 or 14%. Alcohol in its pure form I never touch, so the question is stupid and misleading. No one ever sits down to a nice dinner and a cheering glass of alcohol, and to imply that the alcohol in wine is its center and point is fatuous.

The concentration on alcohol is a perfect example of science run amuck, in which a single element is so abstracted from everything else that it can become a universal villain. Nobody asks flu sufferers if they breathe or if they “use” air – though that may be coming, may it not?

What is left out in that annoying question is the basic fact that the alcohol we wine lovers consume never comes to us as a neat little jigger of pure alcohol. Taking only chemistry into consideration for the moment, it comes bonded to the 86 or 87% of wine that isn’t alcohol. Most of that is water, and the rest is color and flavor elements derived from grapes, plus such trace elements – chemical or mineral – that the vines have sucked out of the soil and transmitted to their fruit.

“Even after the process of fermentation, wine conserves different organic compounds from grapes, such as polysaccharides, acids, and phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and nonflavonoids. These substances have known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, and are considered as regulatory agents in cardiometabolic process.” In plain English, there are things in wine that are good for you.

That whole package, of which the alcohol is an integral part, composes what we relish in the wines we drink – the body, the mouth feel, the aromas, the spectrum of flavors that each wine gifts us with. Are we to suppose that the alcohol in a wine is not modified in some way by its integration into such an amalgam?

Drinking wine with a meal is not like pouring neat alcohol down your throat, all by itself. Sure, it can be a poison that way. But in wine, the alcohol goes into a stewpot of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and minerals from the foods, and they’re all acted on by the digestive enzymes as they’re absorbed into your bloodstream. I think there’s more complexity to that process than typical medical explanations provide — maybe even more subtlety than modern-day chemistry admits of.

And that, of course, focuses only on physiology and ignores the psychological, social, and cultural aspect of our “use” of wine. I believe the effects of alcohol on the body are modified or altered not only by the things we eat with it but also by the way we share it with other people and the occasions on which we do so. Measuring alcohol only in the abstract as a chemical falsifies everything about drinking wine.

We must remember: Science is a way of looking at and understanding the world, an often effective and useful way of so doing, especially when judged by its own standards. But they are not the only standards, and science is not the only way of seeing and understanding the world. The questions science answers are only the questions that science asks, and there are rafts of questions that are never asked because they aren’t “scientific.” Other ways of seeing the world can be just as effective and useful, and we need to remind ourselves of them.

One small example: How different a world, how different a set of assumptions would be implied, if your doctor ever asked “Do you enjoy wine?” – and that is a perfectly sensible question. Cheers!


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I’d hate to have to calculate the amount of time that many of us waste brooding about the wines we’d love to drink, if only we could afford them, or the indispensable wines we’d want to be stranded on a desert island with (and what about the cuisine there, hmm?), or that magnificent cellar we’re going to put together to drink at its maturity, when we’re 140. Dr. Johnson could have made this a whole other portion of “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”

I used to be guilty of that kind of mental debility myself, until it finally dawned on me that that whole congeries of imaginings is close kin to the question anyone knowledgeable about wine is constantly asked: What’s your favorite wine?

To which question the only sensible answer is, The one I’m drinking right now. Just so, your dream collection is – or ought to be – the wines you’re already drinking. If you don’t like them or don’t think they’re good enough, then why are you drinking them?  If, on the other hand, you do enjoy them, if they match well with the foods you eat, if they’re not setting you up for debtors’ prison, then your fantasy is irrelevant: You’re already living the dream. Congratulations!

I’m not being facetious. I certainly agree that if you love wine, you ought to form a collection of wines you love, to which you can give a little aging and from which you can draw, down the road a bit, when they will have matured at least a little. But that doesn’t mean you have to scrimp and save and drink plonk now so that when you’re old and feeble you can let a spoonful of Château Pétrus trickle across your debilitated palate. Let me let you in on a nasty little wine world secret: Fabled wines can disappoint just as readily and just as often as more ordinary ones.

As a wine journalist, I’ve been able over the years to taste many highly reputed wines – in effect, the collective Grands Crus of several countries – and in all honesty I can tell you there were a significant number of disappointments among them. Some of the wines were magnificent, to be sure, and there were very few outright stinkers, but there were a good number of wines well past their peak, even a few just plain dead – and, most important of all, there were a good many that, while perfectly nice, in no way lived up to their reputations or my expectations.

The problem there could be me, I grant you: Personal preferences and palatal acuity on any given day always play a role in these experiences. But you must grant me that such factors also affect you. Any single bottle of wine is a crap shoot, though none of us likes to think about that when we’re buying. This is especially true of older wines, which is why serious auction houses and specialty retailers make such a fuss about the provenance and storage history of the wines they handle: A sound history can’t guarantee the quality of every single bottle, but it can reduce some of the risks.

Myself, I don’t like to buy older wines, no matter how impeccable their provenance. Why? Cost, plain and simple. I much prefer to buy my wines young and age them myself. I know my own storage conditions, and I can compute how quickly or slowly my wines will mature in them – and besides, I always have the pleasure of taking out a bottle from time to time, just to see how the kids are doing. You don’t need a desert island for that.

Lest I lose my focus here, let me stress that wine is for pleasure – both future pleasure and pleasure right now. If you have the economic means and the physical facilities, and are young enough to have many years (probably, but who knows?) in front of you, by all means put together a wonder collection of long-aging trophies. And then hope for the best.

But if you’re a person of average resources, focus more realistically on wines that can give you nearer-term pleasure. Winemaking around the world has attained a tremendously high level of quality, and a good many of what have been traditionally thought of as lesser wines can, with just a few years aging, give you an astonishing degree of pleasure. I speak from the experience of many tastings here. That’s been my strategy for a good many years, and – while I might every now and then long for a forty-year-old Bonnes-Mares or some such – it has consistently provided me with lovely, far above average wines for my daily dinners, and even some truly exceptional wines for special occasions. I have never regretted it.

Escaping into fantasy is always fun, but pragmatism pays big dividends here and now.


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Back in the days when I used to lead occasional tasting sessions, I every now and again conducted one for total wine beginners. These were always the most challenging, just like Introduction to Literature courses for college undergrads. On one hand, as experienced teachers wryly used to say, “Everything you tell ‘em is news.” On the other hand, there’s so much to tell, how do you cover it all? Or if you give up any notion of covering it all, how do you select what to include and what to leave out? Above all, how do you convey the excitement of it? the pleasure of it? How do you make the students or attendees themselves share that pleasure?

With wine, one widely practiced way is to describe the character of the wine during, or right after, people taste it – in effect, tell ‘em what they’re tasting. I hate that. I hate it when people do it to me, and I hate to do it to others. It’s too easy to suggest what they should be tasting and consequently make them taste it. I want to taste for myself and register my own impressions before I hear anyone else’s, and when I conduct a tasting I want the participants to do that too.

The one thing I’ve always stressed, in any session I’ve ever led or attended, is that you only taste with your own mouth. (Which, by the way, is why I think tasting notes are at best useless and at worst harmful or misleading.)

Tasting with my own mouth

But – and this is one of those distressingly huge buts – you can stress the importance of tasting for yourself as forcefully as possible, but that doesn’t mean it will sink in. Some people seem to lack the self-confidence – or maybe the taste buds – to do so. I remember that after one such introductory tasting session – for management consultants, who as a group don’t seem to lack self-confidence – one very seemingly poised young woman timorously approached me with a glass of wine and said “Please taste this and tell me if I like it.” This loquacious wino was for once speechless.

Say what?

The point, of course, was that I could probably have told her a good deal about the wine, and whether I liked it or not – but not whether she liked it. That was a matter of personal taste, which is a whole other matter from what she was tasting in her mouth. I have occasionally served what I thought was a beautiful, mature wine to guests who turned out to much prefer the flavor and character of younger, more obviously fresh-fruity, wines. That’s also a matter of personal taste, and you only discover what your personal taste is by trying different kinds and ages of wine.

You can certainly sharpen your taste by experiencing more wines of different grape varieties and educating yourself about them. That way, you can begin to discern just what it is about them that creates pleasure for you, and knowing that means you can buy and drink better and smarter and more enjoyably.

But taste is not a constant: Your palate and your preferences evolve over time. I used to enjoy Sauvignon blanc much more than I do now. I remember once comparing it to Chardonnay as Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe, meaning both terms as compliments. Over the years, I’ve become less and less pleased by the herbaceous qualities of Sauvignon: The grass and the cats’ pee have, for my palate, taken over and largely submerged the qualities of the grape that I used to like. In effect, I’m still tasting pretty much what the textbooks tell me I ought to taste in this grape, but I just don’t like it anymore.

Things like that happen all the time, even to tasters far more acute than I am. The important thing is to keep track of your preferences – and above all, never apologize for them. What you taste is what you taste, and no one can argue with that, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed to” taste.


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With its recently released 2019 edition, its fifth, Daniele Cernilli’s Essential Guide to Italian Wine has come of age. Published now in Italian, English, and German editions, well over 600 pages long (and well indexed), and reviewing 1,134 estates and 2,809 wines, the Essential Guide certainly covers the Italian wines that a North American consumer needs to know about – in fact, many more than are currently available in this hemisphere. But one can always hope.

Cernilli’s Guide is organized in the classic way, region by region, the producers listed alphabetically and awarded zero, one, two, or three stars based on their total production and track record; and selected individual wines scored on the now standard, to me infamous 100-point scale and their price range indicated – all useful information, handily presented.

For those who may not recognize his name, Daniele Cernilli is a central figure in the Italian wine world, a critic of major importance and great knowledge. He was one of the founders of Gambero Rosso and was deeply involved not only in its editing but also in the whole process of its evaluations, which by way of their one-, two-, and three-bicchieri awards became the most prestigious of all of Italy’s ranking systems.

When he and Gambero Rosso parted ways several years back, Cernilli reinvented himself as Doctor Wine and began creating his Essential Guide.

I shudder to think of the amount of work it took to bring it to its present condition, especially since Cernilli and his co-workers do not solicit samples or accept advertising from individual wineries. Instead they visit wineries, participate in regional and consorzio tastings, and even buy wines from the same sort of shops Italian consumers patronize. That last practice will send chills up the spines of wine magazine publishers on several continents.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Daniele Cernilli for at least two decades. Even fuller disclosure: We don’t always agree – in fact, we have sometimes been on opposite sides of a wine, a winery, or a wine style. But I don’t know anyone who knows the wines of Italy – all of Italy – in greater depth than he does, so I always take his evaluations seriously.

Here’s a representative example of both his knowledge and our occasional disagreements: The 2019 Guide’s White Wine of the Year award is shared by two wines:

  • Fiano di Avellino Stilèma 2015, Mastroberardino, Campania
  • Solo MM 15 2015, Vodopivec, Friuli Venezia Giulia.

Now, Fiano di Avellino is a justly esteemed grape variety, and Mastroberardino has long been one of its finest producers. Additionally, I happen to have tasted the Stilèma, and I agree totally with Cernilli’s judgment of its greatness. Here’s what he says of it in his entry:

Typical notes of flint, then fresh almond, wild herbs, elegant and extremely clear aromas. Agile and savory taste dominated by a magical freshness that gives elegance and drinkability to the wine. Smooth and long persistence. Great wine.

Stilèma is the first fruit of an experiment initiated by the late Antonio Mastroberardino to use materials derived from old and especially from pre-phylloxera vineyards (of which there are several in the Fiano zone) to back-engineer Fiano di Avellino to the sort of prime vines and field and cellar techniques that yielded the greatest wines of what we can call the “pre-industrial years” of Italian winemaking. As Antonio’s son Piero puts it:

We intend to evoke the style of vinification of the native vines of Irpinia (Greco, Fiano and Aglianico) as it took place between the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 70s of the twentieth century for Taurasi, and between the years 70 and 80 for the two noblest whites of Irpinia. It is, then, the style (or the Stilèma) of a family that interprets, over generations, the natural heritage of its territory, which makes it specific, as predestined to play a role in that land.

Noble purposes, and already producing noble results.

But what of Cernilli’s other choice for White Wine of the Year? Solo MM 15 2015 is a wine and Vodopivec a maker unknown to me. Cernilli describes winemaker Paolo Vodopivec as a meticulous and devoted craftsman, committed to the very localized traditions of the Friulian Carso and to experimentation with vinifying wines in amphorae. Of this wine, he says:

100% Vitovska grapes. Fermented in amphora for 6 months then aged in large casks. Unfiltered. Bright straw yellow color. Austere nose offering notes of sea breeze and aromatic herbs. The palate is expressive, briny and citrusy; powerful and fresh, vibrant, and with a unique personality. Wonderful wine.

That’s certainly detailed enough to prompt me to look for a bottle next time I’m in Italy, since I infer that it comes to this hemisphere only occasionally, in small quantities and at fairly high prices. A little research told me that Vitovska grapes are very localized within Friuli, had almost disappeared until rescued a decade or so ago by some devoted winemakers, and are now enjoying a small vogue in Italy. Worth a try? For sure. One of the year’s great white wines? Given my very uneven experiences with amphora-aged wines, I’d say that’s far less certain.

But the surprising (to me at least) award pairing gives evidence, if any is needed, of just how unconventional and eclectic Cernilli’s palate is, how plugged in to the Italian wine scene he is, and how informative and useful – indeed, what a simply interesting read – his Essential Guide is. You can count on one finger the number of annual wine guides I enjoy picking up and just browsing in: This is it.

Since this will be my final post of 2018, there can be no better time to wish you all a very happy and a very vinous New Year – which I do, most heartily.  Cheers!

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My current physician says that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor does. A friend of mine – a wine lover, of course – told me of his encounter with a French doctor some years ago when he lived briefly in France. At his check-up, he was asked, “Do you drink?” and he answered “Yes, wine with meals.” The French doctor impatiently brushed that answer off: “No, no,” he said; “I mean, do you drink?”

I know many American doctors who drink, and more than a few who love wine. Nevertheless, the overall attitude of our medical establishment toward drinking anything seems decidedly negative. The past few years have seen a spate of mostly contradictory news stories about the effects of wine drinking on health. I’m not sure the research behind those stories was fully understood or accurately reported in the first place, and I have serious questions about the validity of a lot of it, but the general take-away seems to be “red wine may be good for your heart, but all drinking is bad for you.” Ergo, abstinence is best.

Over 40 years ago, when I briefly belonged to an HMO, and before my activity as a wine journalist dramatically increased my everyday wine consumption, a newly minted MD told me that I had to stop drinking immediately, that alcohol was a poison, and that I was already showing signs of liver disease. Well, I’m still here, and whenever a new physician asks whether I drink, I’ve taken to answering “Yes, a lot,” because by what seem to be the standard measures I should have perished of cirrhosis long ago.

Alcohol as poison acts as an embracing category that makes no distinction between wine and spirits, or between beer and spirits, or between any of the above and pure alcohol. This, of course, fails to take into account the circumstances of consumption, and it totally disregards differences in individual capacities and reactions to alcohol: The ounces of alcohol you swallow are the only thing that matters. To that, I can only say: Piffle! – which is as scientific an answer as it deserves.

This is inescapably a very subjective topic, because I can speak with authority only about what I know first-hand, and that is largely myself, so bear with me, please.

I never drink alcohol, ever. I drink wine, the best wine I can lay my hands on, and I drink it with food, the best food I can find, and I take great, great pleasure in it. I don’t get drunk, but wine with my meals enhances my life enormously – and I personally believe quite firmly that being happy is very good for my health.

Have you ever wondered why happiness is never mentioned in medical conversations?  That absence points to a blind spot in the scientific literature, because happiness is not (at least not yet) a scientific category, not yet a subject of medical research. Let’s hope its moment will come soon, because talking about the medical implications/repercussions of wine drinking (and many other things, to be sure) is totally incomplete without it. The individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic – everything that generalizing science dismisses as anecdotal – is crucially important in talking about drinking (especially drinking wine, I would say) and its effects.

Beyond that: Drinking wine with food is not at all the same phenomenon as consuming alcohol. We all know that cookery is a sophisticated form of chemistry – humble rice and humble beans in combination create a complete, nutritious protein – and serious winos know that wine changes food and food changes wine – but are there any scientific studies of the chemistry there and what healthful consequences it may have? Not that I know of, though I’d be happy to hear about them. But those wonders won’t be found until somebody looks for them. From a lifetime of literary and historical research, one thing I know for sure: Answers precede questions. People find what they’re looking for – and if all they’re looking for is poison, that’s all they’ll find.

Most of the medical advice that I’ve read about drinking seems to me equally blind. The US government’s current guidelines recommend a daily maximum of 10 ounces of wine for men and 5 for women. This distinction is bolstered by an array of allegedly blanket biological differences between the sexes. How valid can that possibly be, given the vast difference in individuals’ (of either sex) metabolisms and capacity for food and drink? That’s stupid on many counts: My wife is as tall as I am, and loves wine as much, so I should give her half a glass of wine for every one I take? That’s the road to divorce for sure. Ten ounces/five ounces is a gross generalization, a one-size-fits-all formula that ignores everything about wine drinking except its possible harm.

In my opinion, the happiness that wine can create should at very least be weighed against any harm it may cause, and individuals have to decide for themselves where their balance lies. I know that if I had to choose between a possible extra year or two of life with no wine and boring food (please pass the fiber, dear) and, on the other hand, a possibly sooner death, with wine and food pleasures and all that flows from them intact, I have no doubt what I would choose, and I think I would have so chosen any time these past 40 years. Until medicine can factor the happiness quotient in its diagnoses, I will remain a skeptic and what dour old St. Paul (“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”) called a winebibber. Long live (I hope) the winebibbers!

Cartoons from Le Vin, © HA ! Humoristes Associés, 1980


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