“I finally sat on the edge of the couch and said, ‘Well, Dr Williams, here we are, all assembled, what immortal words do you have for us?’. So he pointed to the curtained window, looking out on the main street of Rutherford, and said, “There’s a lot of bastards out there!“
– Alan Ginsberg, on a visit with William Carlos Williams
This may very well be the oddest request you encounter today…or this week…or maybe ever:
Give us less credibility.
Wine writers/critics, I’m talkin’ about. Just simply that: less. Me included.
We’re all human. We all make mistakes. In the past nine+years of blogging, I’ve made a couple of howling errors and was caught at both. Astute readers reminded me that I know precious little about horse racing (and should have never used a term I clearly didn’t understand) and caught me red-handed using a brewing term in exactly the wrong way. Those are only two.
But, lately, I’ve been reading around the wine blogosphere and have been appalled at some of the utter and outright baloney that’s being trotted out as Gospel fact. Wine is enough of a mystery, even to those who make and evaluate it, without careless journalists and bloggers making it even murkier. And wine myths were Viral before Viral was Cool.
The most persistent is the idea that there is a white Zinfandel grape; a different thing altogether from the red grape that makes big California Zins. This is the vampire of the wine world; the deathless thing you think was burned and buried but which rears up with numbing regularity. There is NO white Zinfandel grape. To your left are Zinfandel grapes. These are the only color they come in, guaranteed. White Zinfandel is made like any other rosè: from red grapes, with the clear juice given limited contact with grapeskins. A related myth says that all rosé wines are sweet, which is light years from the truth. Worldwide, less than 10% of all pink wines are sweet. Dry Rosé is considered one of the world’s most delightful wines for light lunches and poultry. This is NOT a new development. White Zin is the (relatively) new thang. But, that said, it’s been over forty freakin’ years, now, since the stuck fermentation at Sutter Home Winery that resulted in the first White Zin. That is a long damned time to maintain a myth but this Vlad Dracul stuff refuses to go away, confusing new generations of wine newbies each decade.
I read again, recently, the statement that the term “Blanc de Noirs” (white wine made from red grapes) was interchangeable with “pink wine”. “Pink wine” is usually made from the juice of red grapes but even that isn’t universal truth. (There are wineries that make rosé wines by blending white and red wines) The author of the post didn’t say that. He said that the terms basically meant the same thing, which they do not. “Often, this is a pink wine,” he writes. Far more often it is not. When wines are labeled “Blanc de Noirs”, (as with the dazzling New Mexico bubbly at right, Gruet Cellars Blanc de Noirs) a style of sparkling wine or Champagne, it is to explain that the wine is made from red grapes, usually Pinot Noir, which have had the grape skins removed, so that they don’t impart color to the clear juices. (sigh) So, courtesy of someone else’s loose talk, another infant myth is pushed from the nest and I fully expect to hear it recited back to me, someday very soon.
Another one is that sulfites cause wine headaches. In SOME people, they can, but those are people who have an allergy to sulfites. Far more often, according to the National Institutes of Health, it’s histamines in wines reacting with your body’s histamine receptors and causing the blood vessel dilation that your body uses to deal with flushing away blood-borne critters…but which also causes headaches. An NIH researcher contacted me about seven years ago and told me that wine headaches can be fended off by taking a Claritin about an hour before drinking and, lo and behold, he was right. But I still get people preaching the universal sulfites thing and have had to refer them to my original post about the NIH guy about 450 times, now.
Another is the blanket statement that using this glass can make your wine taste better than that one. There is a TINY kernel of truth to this and certainly a properly made balloon-type wine glass is going to deliver your wine in a far more pleasing way than a jelly jar or highball glass or a red Solo cup. But as to the brand…well, I held a series of tastings, about eight years ago, in which the brand which everyone says makes your wine taste better and five made by other manufacturers (including one $4.50 glass from Cost Plus Imports!) were lined up without brands visible. I poured a series of wines for wine industry professionals and wine writers, asking them to rate their experiences on a scale of 1 to 10. The results, across five of these tastings? The top three glasses were the critical darling’s, a close competitor (which the darlings have now acquired) and the Cost Plus ringer! And the competitor’s glass was the overall favorite. What will make your wine taste bad…is buying bad wine. Good wine can be consumed from a hip flask, that jelly jar, a petri dish, or out of a flower vase and it will still be good. That said, DO buy a good wine glass that’s shaped to let you swirl and sniff and enjoy those heavenly aromas but there is absolutely NO need to make it a Chateau de Forty-Seven Eighty-Five Per Stem.
These myths don’t just come from outright errors, either. Another blog did an explanation of sparkling wines and never once mentioned one of the fastest-growing sparklings in the US: Prosecco. Prosecco (more properly known as “Glera”) is the grape and its region and the wine. Omission can be just as damaging as misinformation. The far less popular Spanish sparklings, Cava, were mentioned, oddly, but they comprise less than 2% of Spanish wine imports. He also mentioned Spumante wines from Italy but didn’t mention that Italians have two forms of sparkling: Spumante (full sparkling, like a Champagne for California bubbly) and Frizzante, semi-sparkling, a wine whose bubbles tickle your tongue instead of scrubbing it. And there was no mention at all of Franciacorta or Moscato or Moscato Rosso (a delightfully eccentric style that frequently shows aromas and flavors of roses(!) and is sometimes known by one of its regional names, Brachetto d’Acqui), or the workhorse sparkling of our grandparents’ generation, the badly abused Lambrusco.. NONE of these styles was mentioned in the post, which dealt almost solely with styles you’ll find in any grocery store. There is a TON of bubbly out there and this article ommitted the French Cremants and German Sekt and South African Cap Classique and the growing wave of Aussie Sparkling Syrah…and pretty much everything but what’s Deadly Obvious.
The other persistent myth is the fantasy of French wines being inherently superior to all other wines from everywhere else. The French, understandably, have long had a vested interest in letting the rest of us think that way but any objective comparison to wines from around the planet will soon lay this one to rest. Great wines are being made everywhere, these days; at least in regions which have a substantial wine history. The simple fact is that the wines which created the French legend are wines that are gone. MOST of the presumptive French superiority in wine is rooted in second-hand judgments from wine critics and collectors. “Oh, the ’47 Cheval Blanc!“, they exclaim and the rest genuflect and nod knowingly, when, in simple fact, many of the nodders haven’t tasted that wine and will be struck down in their bathrooms by Halley’s Comet before it happens. You and I will never taste these legendary wines and our cultural assumption of French wine supremacy derives from American acolytes, ready to anoint anything with a French label as “real wine”. Franco-weenies, as I’ve come to think of them, love to talk up these largely-past glories, ignoring the fact that, across the board, we Americans have this funny, uh, preference for our own stuff and world wines that taste more like ours. I work in the wine trade and have for many, many years. I’ve never even seen a real, live bottle of a first-growth ’45, ’47, ’53 or ’82 and don’t expect to. And a shocking percentage of the out-and-out plonk I taste every year is…French. French wine is “superior” if your tongue says it is. If it says it’s shite…it’s shite.
And one of the worst myths is that wine and wine drinkers are sophisticated…No, they are not…not a bit more than a whiskey connoisseur or a lover of great beers. Sophistication is a real thing which, as Webster’s defines it, means “having, revealing, or proceeding from a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture“. All that is great and is a worthy goal for anyone passionate about any subject. But many wine fans confuse “sophisticated” with “exclusive” and those two ideas, while they can intersect, are displayed at the complete mercy of each person’s character…or lack thereof. It is quite possible to be worldly and knowledgeable and not be a prick. It is possible, also, to have that level of sophistication and be INclusive with it; welcoming neophytes and casual drinkers into wine with respect and simple courtesy. People who are actually sophisticated are fairly rare and they stand out in crowds because of that vague feeling that they’re “different”. Why? Because they ARE different. And it’s been my experience that those people are secure in their knowledge, have no need to establish some sort of phony social pecking order, and are welcoming to those with less knowledge; eager to help them without becoming condescending. That boob who holds forth ad nauseam at parties about some obscure grape or region or some other outré fixation of his own…that woman who prattles on endlessly about how her wine glasses cost $75 a stem and how she once spent two weeks in Milan and so is an Italian wine authority…both have a technical name: jackass.
Rudeness is rudeness, no matter if it’s wearing a surgeon’s smock or a tuxedo or is being sold as wine erudition. Wine people who dismiss beer with a sniffy disdain, whiskey geeks who heap scorn on wine and beer lovers, beer fans who sneer at wine for being “foofy” and whiskey for being “predictable” – these are all, also, just jackasses. The idea that wine is a superior beverage with food is a rusted, busted relic of a time when “beer” meant “BudMillerCoorsPabst” and was basically nothing but watery grain tea with bubbles. Today’s beer styles are endlessly complex – MILES more varied and complex than wine – (see photo at left: Deschutes “The Abyss” Imperial Stout, THE most complex liquid I have ever tasted) and some are vastly superior pairings with food than anything else you can choose. Oysters with Stout? A match made in Heaven. Pork roast with Scotch ale? Bloody perfect. If you’re one of those people who issues a tepid pat on the head for beer drinkers, you’re living in the past and in an outright delusion. If you pair ONLY wine with food, you’re cheating NO one but yourself, and missing some sublime experiences.
We live here in the google age. It’s easier than it has ever been in human history to get a second opinion or fact-check anything. DON’T take anything you read or hear as stone-cold Truth without at least seeing if a reliable wine authority agrees. Here are some recognized names of wine authorities whose books and writings contain facts you can trust:
Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy (the invaluable “Wine for Dummies!)
Anthony Dias Blue
and many, many more…
Find out for yourself. Be a little skeptical. If you read the same fact from three or four reliable experts, you can probably take that to the bank. But quoting any one wine writer or “expert” – or, far worse, a friend who “knows wine” – is always gonna be a very dicey proposition.