“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –” – The Rubaiyat.
“But banish the thought of what has happened to bread; for in that way, madness lies!” – Angelo M. Pellegrini, Wine and the Good Life.
Dining Out With Wine
ONE of my continuing disappointments with the wine situation is the overpricing of wines in restaurants. I think this is a holdover from considering wine as an alcoholic drink rather than as an accompaniment for food. But it’s very bothersome. At most restaurants the markup on wine, over the retail price at a liquor store, is 200 to 300 percent. Thus what should be a reasonably good wine may cost $7 to $10 or more.
I don’t mind a fancy French restaurant having a wine list replete with $30 wines, but they should not charge $10 for a bottle that must, at wholesale, cost them $2.50. A few restaurants have seen the light but it is very few. Restaurant wine prices in California seem to be more reasonable even though liquor store prices are the same or higher than in the East. A few places, here and there, have a house wine in carafes which is reasonably priced. (But sometimes is almost undrinkable.) At some restaurants, the carafe of wine is drawn from a huge barrel in the dining room. Even when the wine is not particularly good, it makes one’s heart glad to see it come gushing from the barrel.
We have friends who had a house built in the mountains of Valais, Switzerland who said their architect asked them what size casks should be installed in their basement for red and white wines. Note that the question was not whether, it was what size. Valais is the home of Fendant, a delicious white wine. It makes my mouth water to imagine having a cask of it in my basement.
In addition to the burden of high prices in restaurants, many beginners are cowed by the wine list and perhaps by the waiter or the wine steward. One time when I ordered a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse, my dinner companion said, “How can you drink that wine, you can’t even pronounce it?” Fortunately almost all wine lists have the wines identified by “bin numbers” or some number that you can pronounce, and even more fortunately, you can appreciate a wine whose name you may never be able to pronounce intelligibly.
Never let a waiter or wine steward make you uneasy. The chances are quite good that he knows less than you do about wine, but even if he is an expert, the wine you are going to buy (assuming your means are not unlimited) is not the sort that demands any great drama on your part or on his. I recall dining with a French friend who is knowledgeable about wines, and when the waiter went through his cork-offering, taste-approval routine, simply shrugged his shoulders, making it clear in his Gallic way that it was non-sense to carry on like that over a mediocre wine.
This friend said he had once toured the California wineries with a group of wine experts from France. He said that at several wineries they were invited into the back rooms for a special tasting and that if you think what the wineries sell is good, you should taste what they keep for themselves.
Anyway, there is no more reason to let a waiter make you feel inferior about your choice of wine than about your choice of dressing for your salad. You are not apologetic about having the bad taste to prefer Thousand Island dressing to Roquefort are you? Wine is to be enjoyed. If you permit it to be used by you or by a waiter as a status connoter, you will be the loser financially and gustatorily.
The French Fraud
IT is common knowledge that the French are far better at making strict laws than they are at enforcing them. Some time ago there was a mild scandal caused by the fact that although the total output of a chateau was checked to see that they did not sell, under their label, more wine than they made, there was no separation of the output into red and white wines. Some chateaux sold their white wine as uncontrolled “ordinary wine” and bought cheap red wine and used their allowed capacity to add it to their labelled red wine. They could make money doing this because red wine prices were so much higher than the white. Suspicious people have always wondered what the French did with all the cheap Italian wine they import.
The full-scale scandal developed when it was discovered that they were chemically treating the cheap red wine to make it taste like high quality wine.
At this time, April 1976, the French wine market is a shambles, especially Bordeaux. Wines are selling for half the price of a year ago, and everyone in the chain is taking his lumps. Growers are petitioning the French government for subsidies. Dealers in this country are claiming that the bottom in prices has been reached, and they may well be right. There does not exist enough good Bordeaux to flood the market if the price is within reason.
The French richly deserve their present trouble. For years they have gouged Americans on prices and then were caught counterfeiting their high quality wines by adding chemical flavors to cheap ones. What do you suppose would happen to the price of diamonds if it were discovered that De-Beers was counterfeiting their diamonds, and experts could not tell which was which?
I keep mentally returning to the experts’ court testimony that by no taste or chemical test could the doctored wine be distinguished from the high quality wine it imitated. There’s a lesson somewhere here.
CALIFORNIA wines are made from grapes of the same species, Vitis vinifera, from which all European wines are made. V. vinifera is not native to America but was brought here from Europe. The only important native wine grape is Vitis labrusca to which the Concord and the Catawba grapes belong. Wines from V. labrusca have a “grapey” flavor resembling the strong taste of Concord grape jelly. This grapey taste has long been called “foxy,” which means wild or strange. They were so called by the early settlers who were accustomed to wines made from the vinifera. They found the American wines to taste quite strange.
Labrusca grapes make a strongly flavored wine and ADAMS claims that some people get used to the strong taste and thereafter find vinifera wines to be dull and pallid.
I am unable to judge whether I might like a wine from labrusca grapes because they are, at least all I’ve tasted, invariably sweet as well as foxy. Presumably dry wines could be made from these grapes, but even if the label says “dry,” they are sweet. The distinctive taste of Cold Duck is due to labrusca grape wine mixed with the vinifera. Again the sugar makes the overall impression simply that of grape flavored soda pop.
There are two or three other species of grapes in America, but their main use is as a rootstock for vinifera since they (and labrusca) are resistant to the blight that kills vinifera all over the world. All French vines are grafted to American rootstocks.
A number of people have created hybrids by crossing various vinifera with labrusca grapes. There are literally thousands of these hybrids, many of which produce good wines. Philip Wagner, owner of Boordy Vineyard, has been the leader in creating the hybrids and in making wine from them. His Boordy wines, of the Maryland vineyard, seem to be completely from these hybrids, and at least one of his wines is simply identified by a hybrid number, “White 5276.” According to ADAMS, hundreds of these hybrids are now grown in France since they are also blight resistant, and some of the “ordinary” French wines are made from these grapes, called “American hybrids” by the French.
American wines are divided into two major categories, “generic” and “varietal.” This is a bit odd since obviously every grape, however distasteful, belongs to some variety.* Indeed if it were bottled under that name, the wine would be a varietal. U.S. law requires that if the label names the grape, 51 percent of the wine in the bottle must be made from the grape of that variety. The rest can be any wine. If it has a vintage year on the label, 95 percent of the wine must be from that year’s production.
In America such generic names as Burgundy, Sauterne, Chablis, Rhine, Claret, etc. have no meaning at all except that a given winery will probably keep calling the same flavor by the same name. In general such meaningless names are given to wines made from the cheaper grapes, that is, grapes of high yield per area.
The varietal label is used because higher prices can be obtained for wines believed by wine drinkers to come from superior grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Johannisberg Riesling, Gamay, and Petite Sirah are examples of the many varietals. The big vineyards make most of their money on cheap generic wines while the smaller ones make their money and their reputations on the varietal wines.
There are quite a few very good non-varietal wines and some very unpleasant varietal wines, but by and large, the varietal wines are better. They are always more expensive. Though the law allows 49 percent of some other wine in the varietal, many vineyards use up to 100 percent of the varietal. Some vineyards, Beaulieu, for example, may state on their back label the percentage used and what wine, if any, was blended with the varietal. Actually the amounts are not so important; the quality of the wine is the thing that matters. Bordeaux (the real one) wines are mostly a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or several other grapes. Cabernet when used alone may make a harsh, tannic wine that will require a decade of aging to be really good, so the tendency in both France and California is to soften it by blending. For example Robert Mondavi in its brochure says that its wines are usually 100 percent of the variety named, but small percentages of others may be blended into them to improve the wine. Robert Mondavi, himself, has said his Cabernet Sauvignon should be at its peak about 15 years after its vintage date. That may well be so, but from happy experience, I can attest that the 1971 is very, very good right now. I hope I have a bottle left in 1986 to try, but it doesn’t seem likely.
As if the multitude of vinifera varieties weren’t confusing enough, many of the important wine grapes, those cultivated for generations or centuries, have developed hundreds of sub-varieties or clones. The mere identification of grapes is a difficult and confusing matter, and every now and then it is found that a grape has been misidentified for many years.
ADAMS reports that Inglenook won prizes for several years with its Barbera wine and then discovered that the grape was Charbono instead of Barbera. Inglenook now markets the only Charbono wine – it is very good.
The source of Zinfandel has never been settled. It must have come from Europe since it is a vinifera, but it has not been found in Europe. It is America’s unique wine from a vinifera grape. The range of quality of Zinfandel is great, it can and often does taste like the cheapest jug wines (it is often used in them) yet Louis Martini and Souverain Zinfandels are unfailingly good, and the Robert Mondavi 1972 is one of the best wines I’ve tasted. Zinfandel, by the way, is a wine I did not like much when I first tried it, but one I have now grown quite fond of.
*When Robert Mondavi says: “This wine is made entirely from varietal grapes,” we can only say: “Of course, what else is there.”
Tasting: Tyros and Experts
THE FIRST thing for a tyro to learn about wine tasting is that wine is not uniform like soda pop or his favorite beer. The same brand, the same year, the same type will taste different from bottle to bottle. As with many natural products, it doesn’t turn out the same way every time. That’s why pulling a cork is always something of an adventure.
How much does the taste depend upon the mood and the expectation of the taster? Quite a bit, I suspect. If one opens what he already knows to be a great wine, his anticipation of superlative taste seems quite likely to be self-fulfilling.
On the other hand, it is a frequent experience to open a routine bottle of wine and at first sip to be shocked at how good it is. Also, a wine you expected to be good can be disappointing even though you may not be able to pin down any defect in it.
I believe that both one’s taste and the qualities of a given wine are variables so that a wide range of reactions may be experienced to a single wine. Overall, however, a certain consistency does emerge so one does learn which wines he is likely to appreciate the taste of.
How good are experienced wine tasters? Everyone has this image of the great connoisseur who takes a sip or two of a wine from a hooded bottle and says, “Bordeaux, Mouton, probably 1968, I’m almost sure.” During the wine scandal in France a couple of years back when it was discovered that reputable wine merchants were chemically doctoring cheap wines and selling them as expensive Bordeaux wines, professional wine tasters testified in court that they could not identify the doctored wine. That is, they could not distinguish between cheap wine that had been chemically treated and the great wines of Bordeaux. Further, chemists testified that the wines could not be distinguished by chemical analysis. What conclusions should one draw from this sworn testimony?
I read, in the Washington Star, a wine column that was extolling Zinfandel and claimed that a group of experienced wine tasters at the University of California, Davis, were unable to distinguish between a certain Zinfandel and a Cabernet Sauvignon. A mark of a good wine is its strong varietal characteristics in both odor and taste. Recalling that Zinfandel is the most easily recognized varietal by both odor and taste, what is one to conclude if experts can’t tell it from the finest varietal wine of California?
HANNUM, however, claims there is not as much diversity of opinion about good wines as some would, for commercial reasons, have you believe.
At the very least a tyro is entitled to console himself if he can’t tell one of his favorite wines from another. (That happens to me, sometimes.)
I try not to conclude from the above that all expert tasting is fraudulent, but only that one must keep an open mind and must not be too concerned with expert opinion.
Storage and Aging
NEARLY all red wines, with important exceptions, and a few white ones benefit markedly by aging in the bottle.
Cheap red wines may be noticeably better after as little as six months of storage. We’ve tried this on Italian Swiss Colony Zinfandel, and the improvement was quite evident. More aging probably wouldn’t help this wine – nothing can really help it.
More to the point, wines such as Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon are blended at the winery (therefore the vintage year does not appear on the label) to produce an immediately drinkable wine. But their success is variable; some bottles are very smooth, and some are very harsh. One to two year’s storage brings a startling improvement. Presumably, a longer time would not produce an even better result, because the wine is blended for early drinking. A year or two of storage may not be a big problem. You just find your annual consumption rate, buy three times that amount, and from then on, annually replace the bottles consumed.
The problem arises with the better wines, the really fine Zinfandels and Cabernets that would benefit by ten to fifteen years of aging. Most people are short on space, money, and, perhaps, time and find this problem unmanageable.
The bare facts are these: A wine such as Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1969 (judged in 1972 by a group of wine makers to be the best Cabernet released that year) was released in mid-1972, say, and was available throughout 1973 for about $5. Each year will add $2 or so (interest plus storage costs) and by 1980 when it probably should be drunk, it will cost $20 to $30 (not allowing for inflation). And even at that it may not be available. If you have space, it probably makes sense to use some of it for the high quality wines.
Fortunately for the people who do not have the space or who simply can’t wait, the Robert Mondavi Cabernets are quite palatable after three to five years from their vintage date. “Palatable” is actually an understatement, “glorious” would be more like it.
The case discounts on wines make it worthwhile to buy all of them by the case, but one obviously should not use much of his scarce storage space for wines that do not improve with aging.
A cool, vibration-free basement area is fine for wine. A cave would, of course, be even better. In a pinch the temperature range suitable for people’s comfort will serve for wine storage. Light may be easily excluded by keeping the bottles in the cases. If nothing else, stick a few cases under your bed.
VARIETY is an important factor in wine enjoyment. If you should settle on a red wine and a white wine as your favorites and confine your drinking to them, your pleasure in them will soon fade though both are good ones. I’m sure if one could afford the finest Bordeaux and drank it exclusively, he would soon lose his appreciation for it. (I’d like to try that experiment.) One needs the variety and is fortunate that such a multiplicity exists that he can hardly sample them. At our house we consider Paul Masson Cabernet to be our “house wine” and, in our opinion, no one really needs a better wine. But we drink a wide variety of Zinfandels, Gamays, Barberas, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays and many others because we have found that the variety of tastes and odors adds a continual zest, freshness and, quite often, a delightful surprise to our enjoyment of wine.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Raleigh Cursive. Tint blocks are Benday plastic rules. Inks are Van Son Red Pepper & 40904 Black. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P press at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.
Bibliography is found in Part 1, Boxwooder No. 90.