Category:A Featured Post

A college enology class gets its fill of the Wine Curmudgeon

The video in this post was part of my appearance on Oct. 3 at a viticulture and enology class at Dallas’ El Centro College, which has one of the best culinary programs in the southwest. I offer wisdom on how to learn about wine, the idea behind cheap wine, and the joy of regional wine — all in less than eight minutes. I also managed to plug The Cheap Wine Book.

The class took 90 minutes, and at the end we tasted six Texas wines. The students were mostly pleased with what they tasted, though there was the usual disagreement that occurs at these sorts of events. One group would like a wine because it was fruity, while another wouldn’t like the same wine because it was fruity. This, as I always point out, is just one reason why wine is so much fun. One can argue and drink wine while arguing.

One other point worth noting: The students were fascinated by the idea of $3 wine, and we spent a fair amount of time discussing whether they were worth drinking. Many of them, as it turned out, were big fans of Aldi’s $3 wines.

El Centro College’s Alex Curran shot and edited the piece, and did a terrific job working with a very awkward Wine Curmudgeon. And did I really say I was one of the leading wine writers in the U.S.? Unfortunately, given when we did the video, he had to use the old website in the montages.

And why don’t I have a hat on? It was raining the day we shot the video, so I didn’t wear one. The legendary Gus Katsigris, who teaches the class and helped start the El Centro culinary program, was very disappointed with me. Gus served Texas wine at his Dallas restaurant in the late 1970s and is one of the true standup guys in the food business, so I should have worn a hat. What are a few water stains among friends?

Julia Child and wine, both local and cheap

Julia ChildJulia Child is rightfully credited with making American cooking more than steak, baked potatoes, and a dinner salad of iceberg lettuce, rubber tomatoes, and bottled French salad dressing. What’s often overlooked is her role in helping us figure out this wine thing, and especially her advocacy for American wine, which was pretty much unknown 50 years ago.

Child was passionate about wine, and it’s worth watching the grainy black and white episodes of the original “French Chef” public television show to see just how passionate. In the second episode, aired in 1963, she prepares her classic Boeuf Bourguignon, and it includes a very intelligent discussion about wine to serve with the stew. You can see it at 25:58 of the linked item; she recommends mountain red, a California jug wine made with zinfandel, and explains why it’s not necessary to buy an expensive bottle of red Burgundy. No wonder, as Jacques Pepin once told me, “what you saw with Julia was what you got.”

Child did a wine and cheese episode in 1970, and the array of bottles — six French wines with their American counterparts — must have been as confusing as molecular biology to most of her audience. That’s because dessert wines were the best-selling wine in the U.S. until 1967 (part of the discussion in Chapter II of the Cheap Wine book), and the first U.S. wine boom was still five years off.

Some of the best wine advice ever written is in “The French Chef Cookbook,” published in 1968. Rose goes with anything, says Child, and she does not have kind words for retailers who offer less than helpful advice. There are also wine and food pairing suggestions, still relevant today, and she explains why there’s nothing wrong with cheap wine for everyday meals. My favorite part, though, is this: “The simplest way to start in on this pleasant hobby is to buy wines, start sampling, discussing, keeping notes, reading about wines, thinking about them, and enjoying them.”

Sounds like a great plan, no?

Wine of the week: La Quercia Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2011

Wine of the week: La Quercia Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2011One of the Wine Curmudgeon ?s great finds this year has been wine from the Abruzzi region of Italy, made with the montepulciano grape. I don ?t know that they have been quite up to the quality of their Sicilian brethren, but the Velennosi was a wine of the week and the La Fattoria is a fixture in the $10 Hall of Fame.

The La Quercia ($12, sample, 13%) continues the trend. It ?s a red wine that ?s simple and cheap, but this is not damning with faint praise. Yes, it won’t win any big-time awards, and I don’t know that I would give it more than a high bronze in a wine competition. But not every wine needs to be flashy. Sometimes, as I learned this summer during the $3 wine tasteoff, that ?s exactly what you don ?t need.

This is an intense wine, without much fruit and very Italian in style, earthy and savory. And anyone who likes California grocery store merlot will probably wonder why I ?m so enthusiastic about it. But on a Friday night, after a long week, drinking it with home-made pizza with sausage and mushrooms, it was just what I needed. What more can a wine offer?

Winebits 302: Wine snobs, wine marketing, appellations

dougfrost

The great Doug Frost

? Enough already: Or so says the great Doug Frost, writing about a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal: “…this is the sort of seemingly contradictory advice that is all too common in wine, and that speaks to a dwindling and, I ?ll dare further, annoyingly precious sub-group of gourmands called wine snobs.” I have been lucky enough to judge with Doug and even appeared in an interview with him a couple of years ago, and the experience has always been terrific. When Doug Frost takes someone to task for being snotty, it’s time for the entire wine world to listen.

? Giving consumers what they want: A British supermarket chain and an Australian producer have signed a three-year deal for the latter to provide the former with wine. Why does this matter to U.S. consumers? Because, as one official involved in the deal said, “Gone are the days when a producer could get off a plane and go and see the likes of Tesco with its list of wines. You need to have a category plan and look at what customers want.” In other words, not making wine because you think you can sell it, but asking retailers what wines to make, in both style and varietal, based on what their customers want. This is revolutionary, part of the trend over the past five years that saw the growth of, among other things, sweet red wine and the increasing power of large retailers to set prices.

? Just say no: Not soon enough, apparently, as the debate over whether there are too many American Viticultural Areas, or appellations, in the United States, continues. The federal government approved four more AVAs last week, reports the British wine magazine Decanter, and it follows “criticism earlier this year that the proliferation of AVAs could confuse consumers as to the wine ?s origin. Historically, this has been a common complaint aimed at the appellation system in Old World countries, and particularly France.” Case in point: Sonoma will now have 16 sub-AVAs.”

The new website is open for business

The new website is open for businessSo far, so good. There is still some tweaking to do, but my biggest concern — that the email subscriptions transferred — seems to have been satisfied. Someone cancelled their email subscription this morning, so it must be working. We still need to add an email subscription form to the new site, but it should appear in the next day or so. Done — look in right hand sidebar.

The other good news? That the e-commerce site is working, and you can pre-order the Cheap Wine Book — autographed, even. Just click on the tab at the top of the page that says New book.

The bad news: Most of the links that refer to older blog posts are broken, and they will need to be updated by hand. That will take a while, given that there are seven years of posts. Also, not all of the pictures made it to the new site; there are some odd-looking squares on some pages as well as some sentences that look out of place, but are actually picture descriptions without the pictures.

If anyone has questions or comments, send me an email.

Texas and Drink Local Wine’s sixth annual Regional Wine Week

Texas drink local wineRegional wine week started yesterday, and what kind of co-founder and past president would I be if I didn’t participate? So here are my links for this year’s effort, focusing on the changes in Texas wine since I started writing about it:

? How much more accepted is Texas wine than just five years ago? The culinary students I spoke to on Thursday night at Dallas’ El Centro College were interested not because they were supposed to be, but because they really wanted to know about Texas wine. Contrast this with the culinary students I taught at the Cordon Bleu, whose main interest in Texas wine came when I drew my not very accurate map of Texas on the board.

? Not only has Texas wine changed, but so have the people drinking Texas wine — the focus of a story I wrote for the Texas Wine and Trail website. The new generation of Texas wine drinkers I talked to this fall were not “the older Anglos who have powered the local wine movement in the state since the 1990s, and doing yeoman work in the process. Rather, they were younger and, at Grapefest and especially at its People ?s Choice wine tasting and competition, less white. I talked to a Chinese husband and wife who asked such detailed questions about what was going on and which wineries to visit that I couldn ?t answer all of them.”

? A French producer made sparkling wine in the state 30 years ago, though the winery eventually failed. Still, one has to admire the effort: “Texas-made sparkling wine is rare, even today. Thirty years ago, when there were only a handful of wineries in the state, it was much less practical. Sparkling wine is difficult, costly, and time-consuming to make, requires top-notch grapes, and needs an established market for its products.”

? The Hill Country is the focal point for Texas wine for most consumers, and it has undergone huge changes, too — not only in the number of wineries and quality of the wine, but in how the region sees wine in terms of tourism and its economy. Ten years ago, wine was an afterthought; today, Highway 290, with its dozens of wineries, could be a wine trail in California.

? And what would a Texas wine post be without reviews of Texas wine?

Wine review: Spy Valley Riesling 2011

One of the themes on the blog for the past couple of weeks has been value — does a wine offer more to the consumer than it costs? In this, value is not about price, because not all cheap wine delivers value. Sometimes, it’s just cheap.

It’s also worth noting that a wine doesn’t have to be cheap to offer value. Yes, it’s more difficult for an expensive wine to do this, given that too many expensive wines are expensive because their reason for being is to be expensive. But it is certainly possible, and it happens more often than I acknowledge here.

One producer who consistently does this is New Zealand’s Spy Valley, which as been making $15 and $20 wines that taste like they cost much more for as long as I have been writing about wine. I had one of those sublime, geeky wine experiences with the sauvignon blanc last year, and it’s not even my favorite Spy Valley wine.

That would be the riesling ($18, purchased, 12.5%), which is as enjoyable as it is difficult to find. I only see it in Dallas every couple of years, given the vagaries of the three-tier system, so when I do see it, I buy it, even if it’s a previous vintage. The producer is good enough so that doesn’t matter.

The 2011 didn’t let me down. It’s not riesling like most consumers know it — no sweet tea-like sugar or fruit flavors that taste like they came out of a can. Instead, it’s a dry riesling, complex with layers of flavor that range from petrol on the nose (a classic riesling characteristic) to citrus and tropical in the front and middle. It’s still fresh and almost aggressive after almost two years in bottle, which is a sign that it’s only going to get better with age.

Serve this to someone who doesn’t think they like riesling, and see if they change their mind. Highly recommended, and well worth the money.