Tag Archives: Eric Asimov

EXPENSIVE WINE IS NOT A RIP OFF

I was going to let 2016 end without a new post, but then I came across and excellent article at VinePair.com (LINK to Article).

The article by Keith Beavers, is entitled “The People Calling Expensive Wine a Rip-Off Are Lying to You.” It is a thoughtful look at a recent trend in the wine media world – the trend of attacking wine experts, the folks who are highly trained in all aspects of wine  and who often recommend expensive wines to their readers. This would include people such as Robert ParkerJanis Robinson, and Eric Asimov.

Here is a sample from the article (I highly recommend that you read the entire article via the link above):

“The pleasure of “taking down” the wine industry is certainly understandable. There’s something devastating about knowing that other people are able to appreciate something that we can’t. It’s especially unsettling to know this about something we imbibe regularly, yet know we are not fully experiencing. There’s something mystical about wine – all those mouthfeels and blueberries and leather. What could be more delicious than to find out that those shamans, those mavens with their alienating knowledge, were nothing but charlatans, snake-oil peddlers whose knowledge was all a hoax?”

Now this blog is, if anything, a voice urging greater appreciation of wine without all the pretense. I have tried to simplify purchasing and enjoying wine, and generally removing the intimidation factor that many feel when confronted with a complex wine, a point system they do not understand, ridiculously mellifluous tasting notes, or a price tag in the hundreds of dollars.

But I have never said not to read the experts. I am self-taught in all things wine (meaning that I have never taken a wine course for certification; I have taken a few seminars) as is Keith Beavers, the author of the VinePair article. Like him, I learned, in part, by reading the experts. Unlike the experts, I am not doing regular tastings of dozens of Bordeaux or Burgundy wines. I have not tasted wines from dozens of other vintages to compare with what I am tasting now (although that is changing over time). So I count on the experts to be guides, although I am not a slave to their guidance.

A good point in the article is the difference between the typical European and American wine consumer:

“Then there’s the fact that there is just so much wine out there. It makes choosing and understanding each bottle that much more difficult. This is especially true here in the United States, because we are not a culture that grew up with wine. Wine in the U.S. is a relatively young culture, and though we want to understand wine, we’re very new at it.

“Compare us to Europe, where drinking wine is such an integral part of the lifestyle,  a part of the attitude. In the rural wine regions of Europe, you don’t go to a wine store and choose a bottle from a selection of 10,000. You live in a specific region that grows one kind of grape best, and the wine that comes from that grape is what you drink, probably every night with dinner. The soil itself determines what wine people drink, and they grow up with a specific varietal like mother’s milk.”

Americans face a huge variety of regions, varietals, wine growing techniques, wine making styles, terroirs, additives, and more when deciding which wines to purchase. The advice of experts is one pathway to take toward greater understanding, but they are never a substitute for trying things yourself and discovering what you like and enjoying yourself along the way.

 

As to expensive versus inexpensive wines, there are reasons why some wines cost more. And there are reasons why many people prefer cheaper wines, even in taste tests with more expensive wines. Again from the article:

“. . . people with less experience drinking wine tend to enjoy cheaper wines. It’s not because wine is one big hoax. It’s rather because their first experiences with wine were probably with cheaper wines, and cheap wine is manipulated to taste the same every year. There’s no inconsistency, no terroir. It’s homogenized, for a very simple reason: We are a culture that likes sweet things. When you’re drinking a really cheap wine like Yellowtail or Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, you’re drinking a wine that has added sugars and added coloring so it tastes the same every time you buy it. And it’s wine experts who teach us how to move past these wines, and how to enjoy the more expensive stuff.”

In my experience with expensive wines, which is somewhat limited I admit, once you get to about $50 per bottle, you can expect an excellent wine and will often get it. I have drunk and tasted wines that cost $250, $500, even $1000 or more. At those price points, if the wine is old, every bottle is unique, and the more refined your palate (LINK), the greater your experience. There is also a certain mystique in knowing that you are drinking say, a 1982 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild, which I have had the pleasure of drinking. What is that mystique like? Think of driving a Rolls Royce versus a Nissan – both will get you there, but the experience of the Rolls will be different. In fact, just knowing it’s a Rolls makes a difference.

For me, wine appreciation has been a slow but certain road toward wines that are well-crafted and which have different characteristics from year-to-year. I drink or taste from at least 500 bottles per year (considering that a day of wine tasting can mean 20 or so different wines). Maybe 40% of those are wines I have had before – at least the label is the same, although the vintage may not be. I would say that the average price per bottle of the wines I drink has gone from $10-$12 a dozen years ago to $25-$28 now. Over that time, my tastes have changed, my palate has improved (intentionally), I have read and learned more about wine in general and have experienced a greater variety of wines.

So I recommend that you read Eric Asimov’s Wine Columns in the New York Times (LINK), especially his wine school columns. Get yourself a copy of Janis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (LINK) or borrow it from the library. Read Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked (LINK) or A Pocket Guide to Wine (LINK). Or, go through the Amazon listings of wine books (LINK) and find something that appeals to you. Read Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast Magazines. And, this blog!

If you are a wine lover, or aspire to be, my suggestion would be to enter 2017 with the intention of deepening your knowledge and expanding your experience with wine. Your life will be richer for it.

Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard

EXPENSIVE WINE/CHEAP WINE – THE CONTROVERSY GOES ON

@EricAsimov on Twitter tipped me off about this article (LINK) by Sarah Miller on the Kitchenette Blog about the VOX video (see below) that has been circulating on the internet recently. The video says that Expensive Wine is for Suckers and features a tasting panel by a few folks at VOX of three Cabernet Sauvignons from different price points. They all liked the cheap one, ergo, expensive wines are for suckers.

Sarah Miller’s hilarious blog post in response (CAUTION: ADULT LANGUAGE!!!) takes VOX and the host of others who blithely support their findings to task in a very significant and entertaining way. It’s a long read, but, IMHO, worth it. First, here is the video:

And here is my take.

I agree with MIller in the basic premise of her post – that there is no definitive line that says what wine is good and what wine is bad; that less expensive wines from large producers tend to be altered with additives to create something other than what the  and grapes and terroir might have created on their own; and that the way we appreciate wine changes with greater knowledge and experience.

Since wine enjoyment is so subjective, each individual will find that his or her experience differs from others’, including many or all of the “experts” in the wine media. This is not unusual, as pointed out in the article – the masses often desire the simplest types of foods, drinks, music and movies. Thus the more expensive wines, those that represent higher quality fruit and true wine making craftsmanship, will tend to be appreciated by smaller numbers of people – more complexity = fewer adherents.

Here is a quote from the article: “Back to the whole cheap wine versus expensive wine thing. Cheap wine is awful. It used to taste like vinegar, and now, more often than not, it tastes like pancake syrup. It is made quickly and with little care. The grapes in it are often too ripe or not ripe enough. Good wine tastes like violets and flowers and fruit and spices and being blown away by it is an experience you are not required to have—but you should believe that it exists, because it does. Yes, of course, there are good wine values and bad ones. There is no one in the wine industry with a brain who thinks that every single bottle of $40 wine is universally better than every single bottle of $18 wine, or that every single person will like a $40 bottle better than a $8 one. As Schneider (a sommelier quoted in the article) pointed out, we aren’t robots.”

The philosopher Ken Wilber writes about the concept of span versus depth: the greater the span of something, the less depth and vice versa. A fast food restaurant will sell many more meals in a day than a fine dining restaurant; an action film with lots of explosions and little if any plot will out draw a character-driven film based on fine literature. Why should wine appreciation be any different?

If you like cheap wine, drink cheap wine. If you like expensive wine, drink that. But I suggest that you not let price, or ratings points, or labels, or other external factors be anything more than suggestions for you. If you are new to wine, find out what you like and drink that. Perhaps you will want to explore other types of wine over time; perhaps you will want to learn more about wines and wine making and that will influence what you drink.

My only caution, as I have stated in other posts, is to watch those really cheap wines produced in large quantities, as they are, more often than not, made with a lot of additives that you do not know about and that may not be good for you. The amount and type of additives tends to change and lessen as the price point of wines goes up, but not in an absolutely predictable fashion. Someday, stricter labeling requirements (LINK TO A GOOD ARTICLE) may help with this issue, but for now, you are pretty much on your own.

WINE ENJOYMENT SHOULD BE ACCESSIBLE AND ENJOYABLE, OR WHAT’S THE POINT?

There is a false notion that permeates wine culture at almost every level. That notion is that there is a level of knowledge that is attainable that will enable a person to know about every wine that exists. Now I know that most wine experts (a word that is past its expiration date IMHO) will say that this is not so, but it is conveyed in wine media of all kinds and by many individuals. My wine Twitter feed includes a number of people who purport to have a very deep knowledge of a very wide variety of wines. I have my doubts.

The reason that this is a false notion is that the sheer numbers relating to wine have grown so large and are so widely distributed around the globe. The California Wine Institute (LINK) has figures on its site for world wine production through 2012 – it shows 25,721,000 liters of wine produced world-wide (LINK). WineSearcher.com (LINK) shows about 3,600 wine regions in the world. There are probably around 100,000 wine producers in the world (this number is a bit difficult to nail down). The number of labels that you find in a decent wine store grows each year, with mega-stores like Total Wine and Spirits carrying upwards of 9,000 wines.

How is anyone going to know about all of these wines?

Wine Angst

For someone who is new to wine appreciation, or even for seasoned collectors, it can seem impossible. Most end up narrowing down their focus to a few regions or varietals, or even a single one. I have a friend who only drinks Kendall Jackson Chardonnay for example. Most collectors focus narrowly, some are more expansive, seeking out a wide variety of wines from various locations, vintages, and varietals. Those who focus will likely have a more in-depth knowledge of the particular area or areas of their attention. Those who explore more widely will have a more superficial knowledge of a variety of wines, regions, and varietals.

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Unless you are in the wine business, you will not have time to taste and understand the thousands of wines that are out there, or even the hundreds on the shelves on your local wine retailer’s shelves. And even if you are  in the wine business, it is doubtful that you will need to know about every region, varietal or producer. The idea that one needs to have so much knowledge can drive people away from the enjoyment of wine, and that serves no one.

My recommendation is to find your own way into and through the many types, styles, and iterations of wine. You may just have a glass or two a week of whatever is being served, or you may be an avid collector of all things from the Piedmont in Italy or Napa Valley in California, it does not matter. There are ways for you to access information about your own desires and preferences.

I tend to be an explorer. Even though I drink wine every day, blog about wine, and will be doing wine-related tours in the near future, I do not spend hours and hours pouring through information about wine. I tend to be an explorer – trying all kinds of wines from various regions – but I also have my preferences and I spend more time exploring those in greater depth as time and my wallet allow. Writers like Eric Asimov of the NYTimes work for me, because he explores a variety of wines from different places. I also enjoy Kermit Lynch, the amazing wine purveyor in Berkeley, whose newsletter (LINK)  is very informative and focuses mostly on French and Italian wines.

But you will find your own sources. I try to keep my blog as general as possible, but since I travel a lot, I write about the wines and the wine culture where I travel, so there may be some posts that do not interest everyone.

the world of wine should not be an impenetrable maze of secret or obscure or overwhelming information. It should be accessible, enjoyable, and allow each wine enthusiast to savor the experiences that he or she discovers. Whether that is a focus on First Growth Bordeaux or on trying to sample each of those 3,600 wine regions in the world, it should be an enjoyable experience, or what’s the point?

I would love to see some comments on this post – what do you think? What is your approach to wine?

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THANKSGIVING DINNER WINES – ALWAYS A CHALLENGE

As we plan for the US Thanksgiving next week, the topic of what wines to drink is always a challenge. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Thanksgiving Dinner tends to last for hours of prep time, appetizers and snacking, football, the dinner itself, then desserts, etc. Eric Asimov of the NYTimes recommends going with wines that have less alcohol, given that you may be imbibing over a longer period of time.

Thanksgiving - Hitchcock
You never know who might show up for Thanksgiving Dinner!

Second, the kinds of foods served in many American homes runs a much wider gamut than on a normal day. I mean, how may other days do you serve sweet potatoes with marshmallows? So there are sweet and savory dishes on the table, plus whatever else has been laid out during the day. In Maryland, where I grew up, there was usually a bushel of fresh oysters in the garage or on the back porch from mid-morning on. By the time you get to the fruit and pumpkin pies, you have eaten a variety of foods.

So here are some ideas for wines – not specific wines, but varietals that will tend to serve you well with the chaos and wide variety of foods that you are likely to be served (or are serving). I also recommend less expensive wines for this day, unless you are having a relatively simple meal. Good wines can get lost in the mix of everything from those sweet potatoes to sauerkraut, to green bean casserole to well, whatever.

You will want red, white, and some bubbly for the day. Bubbly? Well, why not? Sparkling wines can be great for earlier in the day (like with those oysters) and for a toast to begin the main meal. Some of your guests may well prefer to have sparkling wine with dinner as well. I recommend Spanish Cava – very accessible both in terms of price and it’s flexibility to go with a variety of dishes. There are also some great California sparklers if you want to stick to American wines on this most American of holidays. Sparkling wine is great with dessert, as you do not want to add more sweetness to the end of a meal like this one!

As for whites, I think that this is a day for Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Torrontes, and Albarino. All of these are light, low in alcohol, and versatile. There are dozens of Sauvignon Blancs from California, France, and New Zealand that will fit your budget. The New Zealand wines will tend more to citrus notes, while the French produce wines with more floral notes. The Americans can be either – so ask you wine merchant if you have a preference for one style or another. Chenin Blanc is a French gem that is also becoming more and more popular  with US growers up and down the west coast. Torrontes is the top white wine of Argentina, light and crisp and affordable. Albarino is a Spanish beauty that translates well with anything from fish to poultry. I think that you will be happy with any of these varietals on your holiday table.

Looking at reds, we want to keep the alcohol on the low side, which makes it tough to purchase most California wines that are in the affordable range (under $25 a bottle). You can find some Pinot Noirs and Merlots that fit the bill, but you may have to do some searching. Actually, I think that your best answers are France and Argentina or Chile. French Beaujolais is an excellent choice. The wines tend to be lighter, lower in alcohol, and there are a number of good wines in this category that are priced right. Malbec from Argentina can range from lighter to heavier; the lighter versions are great for the holiday table, as are some of the Malbecs being produced in California’s Central Coast reason. Chilean Merlot is a great bargain, just watch that alcohol level. I recommend a variety of reds and whites – let your guests explore.

I would figure a bottle per person, plus any other beverages that you will be serving. Of course, you can also have a similar approach for your Christmas Dinner, which in the US is often a repeat of Thanksgiving. If you are having a beef or pork roast, you may still want white and sparkling wines for earlier in the day or with dessert.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday and let me know you Holiday wine recommendations.