“With each passing birthday I become surer of less and less, so I don’t want to tell another human being how to live. I merely want to share some things I know with those who care to hear about them.” – Morris Chafetz, Johns Hopkins Magazine, March 1976.
“Was 1 a good year?” – Zero Mostel as Pseudolus looking quizzically at a label in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
LAST month in claiming that American wines were either varietal or generic, I forgot a category containing a few interesting wines, the proprietary. Some wineries use proprietary labels such as Paisano, Rubion, Emerald Dry, Barenblut, Chateau La Salle, and Royalty. One of our favorites used to be Paul Masson Baroque, but it has changed for the worse. Boordyblumchen from the Boordy Vineyard in Maryland was one of our favorite white wines, but the Maryland vineyard no longer produces it, and the New York wine under that label does not seem as good to us. Philip Wagner of Boordy says that the label is an “inside joke” and does not refer to any particular grape or blend. It was probably named by analogy to Moselblumchen, a nondescript dumping ground for Mosel wines. Liebfraumilch is the answer to disposing of Rhine wines not fit to be called Rhine wine.
I try to avoid stereotype characterizations of nationalities, but can you imagine anybody but the Germans calling a wine “virgin’s milk?” And, of course, not any old virgin, but the virgin. Maybe there is something to this. Let’s take a quiz: What would be the nationality of a wine named “bull’s blood?” How about “bear’s blood?” Or “tears of Christ?” What would be a suitable name for an American wine? (Ans. Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, ? ? ?.) Enough!
Some wine writers have hoped that American wineries would tend to produce more proprietary labels and leave off the pseudo-European designations now used for generic wines, but that’s not likely to happen in the near future. Such a development would relieve us of such asininities as the current TV commercial, “your taste has gone beyond Chablis,” but since there is no bottom to that pit, you can be sure that worse awaits us anyway.
My Tasting Experiences
WINSTON CHURCHILL said that sex and wine were subjects that no one would admit that he didn’t know everything about. Surely there’s very little about sex that today is not common knowledge, but wine still seems to be mysterious to many Americans. Otherwise we could not have some idiot daring to appear on the tube telling us that so and so’s Pink Chablis is the finest wine in America. Pink Chablis! If you have Pink Chablis, then of course you have to have a Chablis Blanc. Just try that name on your French friends.
I have no idea what others might require to learn to appreciate wines, but my wife and I have been drinking fairly good wines for 25 years, and I believe it is only in the last 5 years that we have developed some real discrimination and appreciation for the better wines. Our son David has grown up drinking good wines and has a real taste for them. I believe most people have to approach good wines slowly through less good ones. It is an acquired taste and one that takes time.
One of the reasons I could never be a real judge of wines is that I like nearly all of them. I tend to think a wine is either terrible or very good with insufficient gradations in between. My personal bugaboo in table wines is sugar. The perception of sugar in a table wine spoils it for me. Unfortunately, most cheap wines have more than perceptible sweetness that gets more annoying as one drinks them. An example is Gallo Burgundy which is often touted as a best buy and which often scores high in tastings. This may simply reflect a weakness in the tasting procedure which is concluded with one or two sips. The first sips of a wine with too much sugar do not bother me, but as I continue drinking it, the sweetness gets more and more objectionable until I finally find it repulsive.
Because so many people like sweet drinks, there is a definite tendency for cheap wines to have too much sugar and for the sugar content to be increased over a period of time. When Gallo Paisano first came out, it was a quite drinkable, but extremely variable, cheap red wine (about a dollar). Within a year or so, it became too sweet and, to my taste, rather nasty. Many Almaden white wines that we used to drink with pleasure (Rhine, Gewurtztraminer, Chablis) have suffered the same fate. Paul Masson Emerald Dry is another example. I fear that a company simply finds that higher sugar levels increases the sales. The popularity of Cold Duck and the numerous pop wines attest to this.
ADAMS says that the road to popularity for a winery is to make slightly sweet red and white wines of rather bland taste for the American consumer.
I know that some of the world’s most treasured wines, the Rhine wines and the Mosel wines, contain quite a lot of sugar and, in fact, the more natural sugar the grape contains, the more the wine is valued. So, at present, this whole group of wines is unappreciated by me.
Everyone has his peculiar tastes and biases. I have found that mine change slowly with time and many things I once did not like have become a pleasure to drink. I still do not like Sherry, sweet or dry. I don’t care for Brandy, and I hate all liqueurs. I do like Port, which is undeniably very sweet, and I am fond of Madeira, which is moderately sweet. (My favorite is Paul Masson which GROSSMAN says is nothing like real Madeira. But I like it better than the two or three real ones I’ve tried, and it is certainly a lot cheaper.) A small glass of Madeira and a soda cracker or two makes a very nice bedtime snack.
The American’s misconception that one should like dry rather than sweet wines has had some confusing consequences. Champagne, American or French, labeled “dry” is sweet; “very dry” is moderately sweet; and “extra dry” is somewhat sweet. If it is labeled “brut,” it is dry, and “natural” is very dry. For the same reason, few other wines are labeled “sweet.” If a label says “soft,” “mellow,” or “smooth,” the wine is sweet.
THE following are my recommendations:
Soave: A light, very pleasant Italian white wine, low priced ($2.25). Bolla, Frassine, Ruffino are all good and indistinguishable.
Chianti: Villa Antinori is an exceptionally good one but is expensive ($5). I like cheap, harsh Chianti also. I much prefer the Italian to the California version but have not checked this out for several years.
Mouton Cadet: A very good “little” white wine from a famous vineyard at a reasonable price ($2.50). We have found the red Mouton Cadet to be quite variable from very good to vinegary. May be bad luck.
Boordy White: The Boordy Vineyard in Maryland makes this delicious white wine from hybrid grapes ($2).
Green Hungarian: A bland, pleasant white wine with an intriguing name. Souverain ($2).
Fume Blanc: A very nice, dry Sauvignon Blanc, like Pouilly Fume, probably better. Robert Mondavi ($3.50).
Cabernet Sauvignon: The regular Cabernets such as Inglenook, Paul Masson, Charles Krug, and others are very good wines; in my opinion, the best wines in the world for the price ($2.50 to $4). There are many superb Cabernets such as Oakville 1970, Robert Mondavi 1969, and 1971, Oakville van Loben Sels Selection 1970, Beaulieu Reserve 1965, and so on. Prices are almost anything from $5 to $20 or more. These are America’s, and maybe anybody’s, finest.
Gamay: Good wine; drunk young (2 or 3 years). Similar to Beaujolais. Robert Mondavi, Parducci, Simi, Paul Masson, and others ($2.25 to $4).
Zinfandel: A very pleasant red wine that required some getting used to for me. Louis Martini is always good at about $2.25; Souverain may be better at $4.50; Robert Mondavi 1972 is superb at about $4.
Barbera: A northern-Italy like wine that can replace Chianti. Louis Martini is reliably good ($2.25).
Charbono: A strong flavor much like Barbera, maybe better. Only from Inglenook ($4).
Petite Sirah: Said to be peppery. Usually seems bland to me but very pleasant and cheap ($2). Nichelini, Inglenook. The Parducci 1971 is an astonishingly good wine. Priced at about $4, worth more.
Carignane: Parducci 1973. This is the grape from which many horrible California jug Burgundies are made. Perhaps as a show of skill, Parducci has made a very good wine from it. Reminiscent of the jug Burgundies but without the nasty aftertaste. Surprising.
Pinot Chardonnay: Robert Mondavi; delicious but so high priced ($6) it’s not worth it. Prices and quality, uncorrelated, vary widely from winery to winery. Gold Seal 1974 from New York is excellent and medium priced at about $3.
Port: Ficklin California Port ($5.75) is very good, indeed. I’ve never tasted any “real” Port so I cannot compare. A complex, sprightly taste missing from any other California Port I have tried.
Madeira: Paul Masson ($2), sweet and Sherry-like, but distinct from Sherry, which I do not like. I like Paul Masson much better than the real, from Madeira, Madeira. And you can’t beat the price.
Well, that should do for starters. Note that the big gaps in my recommendations are the Rhines, Mosels, and Burgundies. In time I hope to remedy this lack. With pleasure.
How to Taste and Compare
MOST people, including me, find it very difficult to evaluate and compare wines. What I believe to be the same wine tastes different at different times, and the first sips taste quite different from the later ones. Most of us are not accustomed to careful evaluation of foods. Normally if we like something, that suffices without any elaboration. But there are so many wines that one needs a way, no matter how imperfect, to compare them. Best of all, an attempt to evaluate wines by a formal method makes one consider the various specific characteristics of each wine and thus will surely increase one’s pleasure in future wine drinking.
A system used frequently in this country was devised by the University of California, Davis. It rates wines by a 20-point system as follows:
Appearance (2). Sparkling, brilliant wine with no sign of floating particles or murkiness is given 2 points; clear with a few particles, 1 point; dull or cloudy, O points.
Color (2) Unfortunately, you have to know what colors are appropriate for each wine. This can only be learned from experience although books may help. White wines can be yellow, straw color, or greenish depending on type. They should not be amber. A rose can be pink to nearly orange but should not be violet, brownish, or deep red. Red wine colors depend upon type. Pinot Noir and Gamay may be light red while Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel should be medium red. New red wines may have a purplish cast. Again, amber tones may indicate oxidation (probably over age or poor storage). A wine is given 2 points unless an off-color or an undesirable tone is evident.
Aroma & Bouquet (4) Aroma is defined as the odor that is due to the grape. Bouquet is the odor that develops after the wine is made. Unfortunately these are difficult to judge, at least for beginners, and are important since 20 percent of the total score is concerned. Aroma may be vinous smells like wine made from grapes, but no varietal character is discerned), distinct (some varietal character is present), or varietal (grape variety is clearly evident). The intensity of the aroma may be light, medium, or high. Score a wine 2 points if vinous, 3 points if distinct, and 4 points if varietal.
Bouquet factors are used to reduce the above score. If wine has an off odor, such as alcoholic, moldy, yeasty, sulfur dioxide-like, or any unpleasant odor, reduce the score according to the intensity of the off odor.
Ascescence (2) Does the wine smell like vinegar? If there is no odor of vinegar, score 2 points; if faint odor, score 1 point; and if a strong odor, score 0 points.
Total Acid (2) Take a sip of the wine and roll it around in your mouth. If sugar and acid are present in the right proportions, it should taste refreshing. If the acid is too low, the wine may taste flat or even soapy. If the acid is too high, the wine will taste unpleasantly tart. The intensity of either taste determines the points given. A young red wine that should be aged before drinking, may have too much acid but age should be taken into consideration.
Sugar (1) Sugar and acid must be in balance. If wine is too sweet or too dry for its type, it is faulty and should be scored 0.
Body (1) This term describes the feel of the wine in the mouth. The body may be light, medium, or full depending upon the wine type. If it is too thin and watery or too full for its type, score it 0.
Flavor (2) The flavor should correspond to the smell of the wine. The taste that lingers in the mouth after swallowing is important. (This is often the most noticeable difference in an exceptional wine.) If the wine tastes good, give it 2 points, or score it less points if there is any off taste.
Astringency (2) Tannin in wines can make your mouth pucker as if you had tasted alum. This should not be confused with acidity. White wines may be smooth or slightly rough, and reds may, in addition, be medium rough, rough, or very rough. Either red or white wines may be mellow, soft, velvety, hard, or harsh. Too much tannin is to be expected in a young red wine that will improve with age.
General Quality (2) Does the wine appeal to you? Does one sip call for another? What’s your overall feeling about the wine? If above average, score 2 points; average 1 point; below average, 0.
Half or other fractional points may also be given in any of the above categories.
Total Score The numerical scores are summed and the sum is given the following interpretation: 17-20 points, wine of outstanding characteristics; 13-16, sound wine, no outstanding merit or defects; 10-12, generally acceptable wine with no noticeable defect; 0-9, commercially unacceptable wine. Sound, enjoyable wines should fall into the 13-16 point category.
We have tried this system in our family with some success. I do have several objections to it. One is that you have to be quite knowledgeable about wines to use it properly. Aroma and bouquet are very difficult to judge, and the total acid and sugar categories seem stubbornly indivisible. Another objection is that a wine could score 10 before you taste it and could then taste awful. I have never been fond of scoring systems that bunch everything at the high end. In figure skating 6 is perfect and 5.7 is awful. So it is with the Davis wine scoring system; any reasonable wine will score 14, and the very best can score only 20.
My biggest objection is that it is based on a sip or two rather than drinking a full glass of wine. I have, for instance, found that Gallo Burgundy tastes quite appetizing for a sip or two and would score well with me, but by the time I’ve drunk a glass of it, the excess sugar is quite evident, and it has become unpleasant tasting. Other wines may, at the first sip, impress me as being very acidic, but the sensation later disappears. Perhaps experienced tasters can judge adequately from a sip or two, I simply don’t know.
So I’m not so happy with the scorecard, but it does have the great benefit of making one consider the various characteristics of a wine and that does help add to your appreciation of a good wine. It helps create the habit of carefully looking, smelling, and finally tasting. And it helps one pin down exactly what he likes or dislikes about each wine. So it is well worth trying if for nothing else but these educational and good habit forming features.
If there’s anything you want to know about wine tasting beyond the brief description contained herein, you may pursue it to incredible lengths in a recent book, Wines, Their Sensory Evaluation, by Maynard A. Amerine and Edward B. Roessler of the University of California, Davis. The publisher is W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco 1976. The sole subject of this book is every aspect of wine tasting.
IT is all too easy for a wine drinker to rhapsodize about his wine. It should be kept in perspective. Wine is but a drink; it is a food, and it goes with food. The only wines that are of any real importance are the ones you can afford to have with your dinner. A good wine is an exultation. A good dinner complemented by wine becomes a great dinner; a roast beef sandwich becomes a delight; and a cheese and cracker snack, an occasion. There is a completeness to a meal with wine, a feeling that all is well. The taste of a good wine brings lift to the heart and a wonderment to the mind that the world provides such things for us. You can see how difficult it is to be matter of fact about wine.
This has nothing to do with the $30, the $100, and the $1000 bottles of wine. Those are more akin to stamp collecting. I believe that wine should be drunk and not collected and sold for higher and higher prices until it has spoiled or died of old age, but in any event, that is a different matter than the simple pleasures of table wine. I repeat: The only wines of any importance to you are the ones you can afford to have, on a regular basis, with your dinner.
How to do it Yourself
GLANCING back to the beginning of this piece, I’m a little chagrined at my automatic assumption that to learn about wines you need first of all to consult books. Of course you really need to consult wines, not books.
Buy some cheap wines such as Gallo Burgundy and Almaden Mountain Burgundy and Mountain Chablis, even Pink Chablis, and try them. Try Gallo Paisano.
Many beginners prefer white wines, probably because they are drunk chilled and are usually somewhat sweet (at least the cheap ones) no matter what the label says. Roses are frequently favored for the same reasons. If you prefer your red wine chilled, chill it also. It’s nobody’s business what you do with your wine or what you serve it with. Do it the way that suits you.
Find the cheapest wines – whites, reds, and roses – that suit your taste and drink them often. Fortunately beginners usually prefer the cheaper wines. Consider that a boon to the pocketbook and enjoy them.
Even the cheap red wines will improve with a little age, say six months. Nearly all California red wines are put on the market too early; the cheap ones will improve for months and the really good ones for years.
Now and then try a cheap brand of a varietal wine, try Italian Swiss Colony Zinfandel (also try keeping a bottle of this for six months), try Almaden and Paul Masson varietals. If you don’t like them better than the so-called Chablis, Burgundy, and the like, go back to those. Try Chianti, both the cheapest kinds and, at least once, an expensive one with your spaghetti. Try Paisano, try Barbera with pasta.
Above all, remember there’s no hurry. If your taste never develops beyond the cheaper wines, if you never develop a “palate,” you can continue to enjoy wine at a very low cost. Most people eventually do seem to move up the scale in wine quality and price, and I have little doubt that their pleasure increases commensurately. But that’s not the big step, the big step is the first one – learning to enjoy wine as a part of your meals.
Just to be definite, I should say that I do not include the cheap, sweet, “pop” wines in the category of table wines at all. Such horrors as T. J. Swann, Zapple, Thunderbird, Ripple, and many, many others are not table wines. That also goes for the “kosher” wines which are syrupy concoctions of Concord grape juice. The latter might possibly serve as a dessert wine if you like them, the “pop” wines are best left to teenagers and winos.
EVERY wine fancier will have friends who do not drink wine for one reason or another. Some don’t like it; some have other reasons. No wine buff should allow his enthusiasm to lead him to try to force wine on his guests. For reasons I’ll never understand, hosts who would never urge a guest to have coffee if he said he didn’t like it will try to push wine, or any other alcoholic drink, on him. It’s almost as if it were suspect in a person not to drink. Take their word for it. You’re showing your insecurity as well as your terrible manners when you are overly insistent.
Last Word and Plea
SOME time ago I wrote about being a Philistine as far as fine art is concerned. The message I was trying to get across, with very little success, was that any faking or phoniness on your part, or mine, would bar us from enjoying fine art and make us feel guilty about indulging our degraded tastes. Since phoniness about wine is as ubiquitous as it is about art, I want to try again to warn you really to abjure the phoniness connected with wine drinking. It is even more critical for wine enjoyment than for art because wine enjoyment is almost always a non-solitary function. It is hard to imagine opening an exceptional bottle of wine and drinking it alone. On the other hand, you must exercise your appreciation of any work of art essentially alone.
The terrible thing about phoniness is not that you mislead others but that you mislead yourself.
If you feel the necessity to impress others, “drink the label” when you have company, but when it is a family dinner, drink only what you like. It is likely that you will grow to appreciate the better wines, but if you don’t you can enjoy jug wines for the rest of your life and save a fortune.
You ought to keep something in your life for your pleasure and forget about status symbols. You couldn’t pick a more rewarding thing than wine for this purpose.
It is a bit terrifying to realize that someone in the future (perhaps near future) will read all the wine prices herein with envy and astonishment that wines were once so cheap.
After this piece was in galleys, a Washington Post panel of wine fanciers tasted 11 American wines using the Davis scoring system. The Parducci Carignane 1973 that I praised on page 6 received a score of 9.1 with these comments: “Bitter, over-ripe flavor; rough, high alcohol.”
It’s enough to make one wonder.
Bibliography is found in Part 1, Boxwooder No. 90.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Raleigh Cursive. Tint blocks are Benday plastic rules. Inks are Van Son Purple and 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.