One of the most common questions that the Wine Curmudgeon gets is about home wine tastings. Are they difficult to do? Are they worthwhile? Are they fun?
No, yes, and very yes.
At a wine function the other day, I met two intelligent, well-read wine drinkers. This was a big-deal tasting, and they wouldn ?t have been invited unless they knew what they were doing. I introduced myself, and I told them what I did for a living. One of the duo asked me how I scored wine. I told her that I didn ?t use scores. She was quite surprised. How do you evaluate wine if you don ?t use scores? she asked.
It was another Wine Curmudgeon moment.
Regular visitors here know how I feel about scores. And if you ?re here for the first time, you can probably guess. I don ?t like them.
At best, wine scores are sloppy, an excuse for discussing what the wine tastes like and what it pairs with. At their worst, scores are dishonest. No one is ever going to give a $100 wine an 88, and no $10 wine will ever get a 95. Even the most horrible wines rarely score worse than 80, which is supposed to be the cutoff between good and average.
And none of this takes into account individual taste, what mood the person doing the scoring was in that day, or any of a dozen other variables like experience and wine knowledge. My scoring (if I did it) is going to be different from yours which is going to be different from your next door neighbor. So why should my wine scores count more than yours? You ?re going to be drinking the wine, after all.
I tried to explain this to the person at the tasting, and I think I made some headway. She nodded in agreement when I said my goal was to give the reader enough information to make up his or her own mind. I ?m the conduit, I said, not the final arbiter. Her husband seemed to be even more favorably impressed, and I may even had made a convert.
One down, millions more to go.
A footnote: One of the wines served at this event was a 100-pointer (which I ?ll write more about later). I glanced at my companions when we found out what it was, and they both shook their heads. Neither could believe it was perfect.
Obviously, wine consumption in the U.S. differs by region. People in New York are going to drink differently from people in Alabama who are going to drink differently from people in Oregon. But those consumption patterns are even more different than you might imagine.
That was perhaps the most intriguing bit of information in he 2007 Nielsen Beverage Alcohol Overview. It ?s just not different ? it ?s quite a bit different, and there doesn ?t seem to be any real reason. In the 52 weeks ended Jan. 12, 2008, for example, wine sales increased 15.6 percent in Dallas and decreased 6.3 percent in Birmingham, Ala.
The Wine Curmudgeon does not like livestock wine. This has nothing to do with its quality. Some of it can be quite good, despite the cuddly creature on the label. My objection is the label itself, which influences people to buy the wine not because it tastes good, but because it is cute.
Livestock wine ( a term invented by the incredibly palate-talented Lynne Kleinpeter) refers to wine which has some sort of animal, cartoon or other clever picture on the label has made huge strides in the U.S. According to the Nielsen survey, the various animals, cartoons and characters accounted for 11.5 percent of the wine sold in the U.S. in 2007 in dollar terms.
Livestock wine is, apparently, here to stay.
The good news: Americans are drinking more and different kinds of wine. The bad news? We still drink too much marketing-driven wine, and I can’t decide if the increase in sales of more expensive wines is caused by better educated consumers trading up or wine snobs buying on price.
Overall, though, the results from the 2007 Nielsen Beverage Alcohol Overview are encouraging. We bought $9.2 billion worth of wine in 2007, and wine has increased from 14.1 percent of U.S. alcohol purchases in 1990 to 20.7 percent today.
But it’s not so much that wine sales are up. What’s worth noting is that Americans seem to be understanding this wine thing in a way they haven’t before. That is, we’re buying on quality, value and even how wine goes with food.
As one executive told me, literally with fingers crossed: “The numbers I’ve seen say it’s not too bad yet.”
The wine business, and the U.S. part of it in particular, is especially concerned about a recession because they are very much not prepared for it. The last decade has seen almost unprecedented growth, with more wine sold than ever before. Until last fall, most producers were trying expand their business, not preparing for a slump.
So what happens if there is a recession? What will consumers do? What will producers do?
Everything you have said so far sounds good. But how do I find out what I like to drink?
Drink a glass, of course. If you like it, then buy something similar. If you don ?t like it, pour it down the drain and try something else. Wine is not rocket science. You don ?t have to go to school to learn how to like it. If it tastes good to you, that ?s enough.
Start with inexpensive wines, and work your way up. And don ?t be afraid to try different wines. Just because you like white zinfandel doesn ?t mean that ?s the only wine you can drink. Try a rose or a German riesling. They are similar to white zinfandel, but more sophisticated.
Well, I suppose. But there are so many wines to choose from. How do I get started?
Walk into a wine store, or a grocery store with a good wine department, and ask for help. Do you want to learn about reds? Whites? About a region? About wine for picnics? About inexpensive wines? Don ?t try to learn everything in one day. It can ?t be done, for one thing, and it ?s not any fun either.
Tell the staff how much you want to spend, if you have any preferences (dry vs. sweet, red vs. white, and the like), and ask them to recommend something. In addition, ask if they offer classes or tastings. These days, as wine becomes more popular, more and more stores do those things. They ?re cheap and easy ways to taste even more wine.
How can you tell I tell if the retailer is any good? If they don ?t tell you what wine you should drink, but ask you what you want to drink. It ?s your money ? don ?t let a snooty retailer with inventory to move make you buy something you don ?t want to buy. And if you buy something you don ?t like on a retailer ?s recommendation, it ?s perfectly acceptable to tell them the next time you ?re in the store.
That makes sense. But aren ?t there some simple rules of thumb, just to start with?
Sure. Remember these, and you ?ll always be able to come up with a decent bottle in a pinch. First, all wine doesn ?t have to be a varietal like chardonnay or cabernet. The best values, especially for inexpensive wine, will be blended from several different grapes. It ?s very difficult to find a terrific cabernet for less than $10, but there are a dozen red blends that will do the same thing the cabernet does for one-third less.
Second, younger is better, since less expensive wines were not made to last as long as their more expensive cousins. Stay away from red wines older than 3 and white wines older than 2. It ?s better to have a wine that ?s a little too young than a little too old.
That should you get you started. The rest is up to you. The most fun part about wine is the journey ? so much wine to taste, and so little time to do it.