Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Desert Islands, Fantasy Cellars, and Other Such Vinous Misdirections

August 29, 2019

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.”
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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.

 

Wine Tastes, Wine Tastings, and Tasting Wines

July 8, 2019

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.)
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Tasting with my own mouth

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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.
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Say what?

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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.
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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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The Essential Guide to Italian Wine? Very Possibly

December 27, 2018

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.
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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!

Wine and Health, Wine and Happiness

July 27, 2017

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

 

Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words

May 29, 2017

It’s fascinating how things converge. I’m reading two very different books, written by people who couldn’t be more different, with very different aims and styles, and yet both arrive at a point of agreement – that of the inability of language to express what exactly it is we taste and experience when we drink wine. Needless to say, for me as a wine writer this subject is endlessly fascinating, but I’d guess it’s also of serious interest to anyone who enjoys wine and has ever tried to explain to civilians what it’s all about.

One book is Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, her account of how wanting to find out if there was any real content behind wine pros’ descriptions of wines led her from an established career in journalism to one as a sommelier at Paul Grieco’s Terroir, a New York City wine bar/bistro/restaurant.

The other book is Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, the poet and novelist’s posthumously collected writings on eating, drinking, excess, his love of hunting and fishing, his dislike of Dubya, his dislike of book tours, his fondness for Bandol, and just about anything else that occurred to him.

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Both are well written – Bosker’s straightforward, rigorous, disciplined, Harrison’s the opposite: like his novels often lyrical and moving but equally often unorganized and self-indulgent. The style really is the man, and apparently in this case the woman too. (Disclosure: I knew Harrison very briefly, decades ago, when he was a young poet who had not yet published a novel. I liked him. I have never met Bosker, but I suspect I’d like her too.)

Bosker’s book is top-flight journalism, an almost-relentless investigation – by way of her rigorous preparation for the Master Sommelier’s Exam – of the folklore and science of wine knowledge and wine tasting. She trains herself to discern different scents (yes, you can do it, with sufficient devotion) and tastes. She travels to UC Davis to find out what is known scientifically of the different chemicals that contribute to wine aromas and tastes and how we perceive them. She even has a brain scan to find out how a professional’s brain responds to a wine as opposed to the way a civilian’s does.

And all the time she’s doing these things, she’s tasting wines – which doesn’t mean just drinking them. It means paying attention to what is in one’s mouth. Just as any athlete’s training of his or her set of necessary skills makes them better, stronger, and surer, attentive tasting makes one taste more – more elements, more complexly, more intensely. As she puts it at the close of her book, “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

I felt a great personal vindication in reading Cork Dork, because that is exactly what I (and not just I, to be sure) have been preaching for lo! these many decades. You taste only with your own mouth, so pay attention to what’s going on in it. And certainly do so with gusto.

Harrison arrives at that knowledge intuitively, not through methodical training or rigorous investigation but by immersion, by diving into the sheer pleasure of the moment and relishing every scent and taste that a meal and its wines allow. He is as suspicious of wine criticism as he is of art criticism, and very sensitive to the way wine is written about.

There are marvelous semi-comic aspects to the problem. Wine magazines and the wine press in general offer tip sheets like those you buy when entering the grounds of Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita. . . . The furthest thing from my own aesthetic judgments is the world of numbers, let alone price. I am admittedly an outsider, a mere consumer, but wine simply can’t be graded like a teacher grades term papers.

Need I say, Amen!

Harrison’s treatment of wine is anything but systematic. Most of his comments occur in the course of accounts of meals that range from wonderful to awesomely gluttonous. Probably the best way to give the flavor of his remarks is simply to quote a few:

We drink wine with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary…. I have it on good authority that both Dionysius and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white.

I’m fairly sure that the numerical system of rating wines was not devised as a marketing tool but that’s what it has become. The truly great Russian writer Dostoevsky insisted, ‘Two plus two is the beginning of death.’ Aesthetic values are decidedly non-digital and can no more be fairly applied to wines than to a thousand or so ‘top’ books a year.

How can humble grapes produce something so delicious with the cooperation of human alchemy? Drinking wine is beyond the vagaries of language and numbers and finds its essence, like sex, totally within the realm of the senses.

Those last two sentences, intellectual and at the same time repudiating the intellect, are pure Harrison, apparently miles away from Bosker’s rigorous intellectual pursuit of the what-ness of wine, but that too led her past the mind and into the intense sensuality of the wine experience. Fascinating, isn’t it?

I think I’ll give Harrison the last word here, because he has a single sentence that sums up a lot of what all we winos feel: “Wine crawls in the window of your life and never leaves.” It’s a good idea to always leave a window open.

 

 

 

 

 

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
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These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
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This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
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And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
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The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

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Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
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I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

A New Book About the Italian Piedmont

October 24, 2016

tom-hylandBack during the summer, my colleague and friend Tom Hyland published an important and useful new book, The Wines and Foods of Piemonte.  It covers just about everything a wine lover could want to know about this blessed region, but of course – since the subject is the Piedmont – it gives pride of place to red wines.  For that reason, I thought I’d wait to say anything about it until the weather cooled down, and an oenophile’s fancy lightly turns to vino rosso.

Well, the moment has come: There is a nip in the air and an uptick in the appetite and a little more time being spent in the kitchen; some of the more organized among us are probably already thinking ahead to holiday feasts and even shopping for Christmas presents. When better to introduce you to a book that lays out all the palatal pleasures of the Piedmont?

hyland

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The Wines and Foods of Piemonte
crams a huge amount of content into the space of a relatively small book.  Its less-than-200 pages cover not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the other Nebbiolo-based wines of the northern Piedmont, as well as the region’s other important red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and even beyond them the less familiar but very, very interesting Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa, and – a particular favorite of mine – the delightful Pelaverga.

And that’s just the reds: Hyland also treats sparkling wines, white wines, and sweet wines. Granted, Piedmont is not famous for its whites, but it does possess several very tasty indigenous varieties, to all of which Hyland does justice: Arneis, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso, Timorasso, Favorita, and Nascetta.  These wines deserve to be better known, and some of them – I’m thinking particularly of Nascetta and Timorasso – are capable of great nuance (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

The book provides useful lists of the best Barolo and Barbaresco crus and their producers, as well as recommendations for the best makers of other wines. It features very informative interviews with winemakers in all the Piedmont zones and also with some of the region’s most interesting chefs.  In fact, for anyone planning travel in Piedmont, the book’s most useful feature may be its several-pages-long list of recommended restaurants – many of which I can personally and happily vouch for.

Piedmont is a gustatory promised land, flowing with wine and truffles, and in Tom Hyland it has found an enthusiastic chronicler.

To order The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, contact the author at thomas2022@comcast.net.

A Wino’s Torture: One More Lament About Restaurant Dining

August 22, 2016

Diane and I don’t dine much in restaurants any more, for a variety of reasons. They’re too noisy for conversation; by and large, they’re overpriced for what you get – at least if you know how to boil water; and the wine lists are usually an affront, with wines both too young and vastly overpriced. I hate to pay more in a restaurant for a three-year-old bottle than I paid for the now-almost-twenty-year-old bottle of the same estate that I have at home. Shameless markups of 200% and 300% (and often even more) are restaurateurs’ way of making winelovers subsidize everybody else’s dinner, and I hate it.

Stressfully Seeking an Affordable Wine

We and two good friends ate at a really fine Manhattan restaurant about a month ago. The food was wonderful – as flavorful and authentic Neapolitan cuisine as I can remember eating anywhere – but the noise level was abominable. Even without the usual “background” music, we couldn’t hear each other, and what should have been pleasant dinner conversation became a very forced shouting and hearing match: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “Did you say…?” “What?”

It reminded us all too painfully of our last sustained restaurant excursion. A few months back we spent a weekend in New Orleans visiting a dear friend. This of course necessitated dining out, which we had in fact looked forward to: This was New Orleans after all, where food and drink are a way of life. So we walked energetically all day so as to be able to dine generously each night: Compère Lapin, Cochon, and our old favorite, Galatoire’s – this should be pure pleasure. What could possibly hurt?

Cochon dining room

A lot, it turned out. Start with noise. If you think New York restaurants are noisy (I live there, so it’s my standard of comparison), New Orleans restaurants are off the charts. Loud background music – make that foreground music – and hordes of tourists, freed from the restrictions of their home turf, who shriek and bellow their entire evening’s conversation, as loudly in the dining room as on the street. We were six at table: If we wanted to talk to our companions, we all had to lean our faces in toward the center of the table and shout – and we still couldn’t reliably hear each other.

The food at both Compère Lapin and Cochon was good, but we’ll never go back. The noise level was intolerable. Even our beloved Galatoire’s was much more noisy than we remembered it: In that temple of New Orleans cuisine, many patrons seemed to feel compelled to talk over the ambient noise, not under it, and the room itself is very bright. In the past, conversations at Galatoire’s took place at a subdued pitch – but these days the backward-baseball-cap crowd has invaded even there.

galatoires

Since seafood is expensive everywhere, and Gulf fish and shellfish are New Orleans staples, the food prices didn’t seem excessive – though dining out every night quickly turns into a fairly costly proposition. But the wine prices were the cruelest part. As the appointed one-man Consorzio del Vino for our group, I had the task of finding wines that would (a) partner with four to six different dishes per course, and (b) not break anyone’s budget. Forget about anything under $100: There were very few of those on any list I saw, and the ones there were did not impress.

Galatoire’s was the greatest shocker. It has always had an extensive and very fine list, unsurprisingly strong in great French wines. But there has always in the past been a decent sprinkling of reasonably priced fine bottles interlaced with the expense-account budget-busters. Well, not so much anymore. Over half the bottles on Galatoire’s multipage wine list now have a comma in their price, and in over half of those, the number before the comma isn’t one. After assiduous study I did find a few items we could all drink with pleasure and without financial ruin, but I pity the non-wine-professional trying to navigate that list without taking out a second mortgage. Below is one page from the 27-page list. Prices removed to prevent apoplexy.

Galatoire wines

It just shouldn’t be that hard – or that financially painful – to drink a decent bottle of wine in a restaurant. But until restaurants dramatically change their pricing policy – and their noise levels – Diane and I will mostly continue to dine at home, thank you.

Riders of the Purple Prose

October 15, 2015

I plead guilty to terminal naiveté. I keep thinking that wine writing is getting better, that the now decades-old campaign to de-mystify wine drinking and de-snobbify wine writing is actually taking hold. And then I read something like what follows, appearing originally in a prestigious wine review publication and forwarded to me by an appalled colleague and friend:

Featured New Arrival
Jacques Lassaigne Millesime Brut Nature 2006 750ML ($119.95) $99 special
Wine Advocate 93 points. “Sourced from Le Cotet, La Grande Cote and Les Paluets – which last-named is southeast-facing and arguably the top site in Montgueux, opines Lassaigne – his 2006 Brut Nature is intriguingly and alluringly scented with fresh lemon and apricot, peony and narcissus, rowan and pistachio, along with sea breeze intimations and a pungency of struck flint. Startlingly silken and creamy, yet focused and vibrantly juicy, this adds a sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness to an almost kaleidoscopically interactive finish. It ought to merit following for 6-8 years. Incidentally, Lassaigne believes that a purer expression of vintage character will always be achieved by maturing this cuvee in tank.” DS

There’s more: It goes on from here, but I already don’t know where to start on this stylistic and logical atrocity. Any teacher of Freshman English would cut it to ribbons for verbosity, pomposity, and redundancy, not to mention near-fatal infatuation with adverbs. “Intriguingly and alluringly”? What’s the difference, pray tell? Startlingly, vibrantly, kaleidoscopically? A light show for sure. This Champagne is credited with smelling of six not particularly compatible floral and vegetal scents, plus sea breeze (“intimations” thereof) and “struck flint” – struck, mind you, not merely inert – (“a pungency” thereof). Those last two amount to Manzanilla plus Chablis, while the former six are a whole farmer’s market. And we haven’t even gotten to what the wine tastes like. Can anyone tell me what a “kaleidoscopically interactive finish” means, much less tastes like? And what, please, is the “this” that adds the “sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness” to that finish?

You see why I inveigh so often about the uselessness of tasting notes? The only thing a farrago like this wants to accomplish is establish the exquisite sensitivity of the writer’s palate – that, and make every reader who has never perceived any of those components in a wine feel hopelessly inadequate and desperately in need of expert guidance. Members of the jury, we seem to have made no progress at all from the days when gentlemen reviewers (there were all gentlemen back then) would solemnly tell us that wine A reminded them of Mozart, while wine B suggested Beethoven.

Until consumers work up their gumption to denounce such purple prose for the impressionistic twaddle it is, we seem to be fated to endure it. I don’t think what Truman Capote said — “That’s not writing, it’s typing” — was true of Jack Kerouac’s prose, but I sure think it fits here. It appalls me to think that subscribers to any publication shell out good money to be so swanked, but apparently the con works. As one of P.T. Barnum’s critics remarked, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

And, by the way, this inconceivably fabulous bottle is available elsewhere for $20 less than the “special” price quoted above.

 

 

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.