Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part V, The Final Chapter

The last installment of my review will cross from factual mistakes to a more esoteric approach.
I have no patience for snobbery when it comes to wine.  People are intimidated, turned off and overwhelmed by overbearing blowhards who bully them into thinking they are not worthy.  This boorish behavior comes from all manner of wine drinkers but it becomes completely inexcusable when an expert in a teaching role chooses to do it.
My proudest moments in the business came when consumers thanked me for helping them actually understand more about wine because I talked to them clearly and plainly about a potentially confusing subject.  A few moments of belittlement can cause otherwise interested individuals to shut down and stop exploring the wonderful world of wine.
Ms. Teague should be held to the highest standards but she may have failed even if graded on a curve.  
"(For example, the word ouch is not considered a valid tasting term - although it was one of Peter's favorites and seemed to sum up his feelings about certain wines.)"  First of all, let's get one thing straight: There is no such thing as a non-valid tasting term!
Perhaps in the Master Sommelier or Master of Wine exam there may be some terms not acceptable but other than that, if the word you use describes your feeling about a wine, it's valid and you should use it!  Especially if it is as evocative as "ouch."  I loved that Peter used the word.  It meant something to him, it accurately depicted the impression he received from the wine and Ms. Teague should have encouraged his inventiveness.  She also might have armed him with a word or two that are more widely used, like sharp or tart or astringent or get the idea.
This is the last example I will share from the book and I will let my original notes do the talking for me.  They follow her quote.  "Don't say bubbles, say bead, I reminded Peter.  And the collection of bubbles that forms at the top of the glass is a mousse, not a head, by the way."  My notes, verbatim: AAAAUUUGGGHHHH!!! First, say any damn thing you want as long as it makes sense.  Bubbles works fine and so does head.  Mousse - really, who says that?!?  This is exactly the sort of snobby, snooty, holier-than-thou bullshit that turns people off from learning about wine.  AND, by the way, Ms. Teague, you could not even go one sentence after chastising Peter without using the word bubbles!!!
It was at this point in the book that it occurred to me that Ms. Teague had little or no real interest in truly teaching Peter much of anything.  Her prime motivation seemed to be to ensure that he behaved like a proper little schoolboy in the presence of people she wanted to impress.  If he said all the "correct" terms around her friends she could bask in the glow of admiration and congratulate herself on a job well done.  Peter, meanwhile, has much to unlearn.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part IV

A missed opportunity followed her unfortunate experience with a Zweigelt from Austria.  "The aromas were rank, almost fetid.  They were certainly well beyond 'rustic' and into the realm of truly bad."  She names the producer (I will not - at least partly because the bottle may have been corked).  Did Ms. Teague return this ugly wine to the wine shop?  No.  Nor did she discuss the possibility that the wine might be off, she chose instead to smear a well-regarded producer.  A fantastic teaching opportunity presented itself to explain how to return a bottle and for what reason, something most consumers do not understand.
Another teachable moment escaped her with this observation: "Even though the first Hourglass vintage was 1998 (a rare bad vintage in Napa, one of the worst of the decade), it didn't affect the quality of the wine."  She does not elaborate.  If it was a "bad" vintage how can the quality remain?
There are almost no truly "bad" vintages anymore, winegrowers, winemakers and technology allow for corrections even in, what I prefer to call them, off vintages.  Different styles result from different weather patterns and some years should include a discount if the quality slips but Ms. Teague speaks well of the quality and still dismisses the vintage.  Good producers make good wine every year but the wines will not be exact clones of one another.
Disappointingly, when the teacher and protege headed to California for a tasting tour, they focused an inordinate amount of attention on hard to find, high end wines: Merry Edwards, Dalla Valle Maya, Harlan Estate and Rubicon.  This is an ongoing gripe I have with wine writers who have special access and often do not pay for their indulgences.  This tour hardly served as a beginner's tour.  Instead, it  presented a skewed view of California wine to a novice.  It did, however, paint a wonderful picture of the general tone of snobbery and snarky elitism so prevalent in the book.  I will address some of this in the final installment but I think I owe Ms. Teague a tip of the cap first.
While I am busy picking her book apart, let me also congratulate Ms. Teague on one of the best descriptions about oak and wine I have ever read!
"Yet the idea of putting a wine in wood, either for fermenting or aging or both, isn’t merely to get the taste of the barrel but to use the wood as a frame, supporting the fruit but also serving as a background flavor, rather than the dominant note.  The fruit of a wine is the painting, and if the only impression you have of a wine is the oak, then you can’t see the picture for the frame.” Brilliant!

Back to the criticism one last post.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part III

I hope this is appreciated by readers and Ms. Teague because her book needs lots of correcting and further explaining.

When she discusses the Southern Rhone, she writes, "Other notable Southern Rhone reds include Cotes du Rhone."  In fact, this designation can come from the south or the north, although the norm is southern.  What she fails to mention here is that Cotes du Rhone also comes in white and rosé.  Not a big deal, but worth a quick mention.

A tip from her about how to determine if a wine list is overpriced recommended checking the price of Veuve Cliquot, a well known and ubiquitous Champagne, to see if "you're likely being gouged other places on that wine list as well."  Not every restaurateur applies the same markup to every bottle on their list.  In fact, some will make a much larger percentage on commodity brands like Veuve Cliquot than they might on a fantastic but unknown bottle.  A sommelier who was a client of mine followed this approach and said any customer who ordered the name brands should be "punished for being a chump."  This is a little over the top to me but the point here is that Ms. Teague's advice does not necessarily work the way she says it does.

On the subject of Champagne she published this:
"                 Types of Champagne
Sweetness                                                 Style
Brut - dry                          Blanc de blancs - white wine of white grapes
Sec - off-dry                     Blanc de noirs - white wine of red grapes
Demi-Sec - sweet             Rose - blend of red and white wines"

This is actually how the chart appeared.  The two listings are independent of one another but this makes it look like Brut might only be Blanc de blancs.  I'm guessing this was a space saving move but it may confuse readers.
From an accuracy standpoint, I have no issues with the Style side but the Sweetness side leaves a bit to be desired.  She does not list an 'Extra-Dry' option which is one of the more confusing styles of bubbly since it is actually less dry than Brut.  It is also seen much more often than bottles labeled Sec or Demi-Sec and seems more important to include because of that.  Sec means 'dry' so to describe it as off-dry is confusing, perhaps she should have elaborated.  Demi-Sec means 'half-dry' and certainly has some sweetness but it is not Doux which means 'sweet' and is rare.  There is no mention at all of Brut Natural or Extra-Brut (both of which are drier than Brut).

She stumbles again on dessert wines: "Eiswein, wine made from botrytised grapes that actually freeze on the vines."  Eiswein is made from grapes that freeze on the vines but they are not affected by botrytis.  [This is sometimes called 'noble-rot' and is essentially a mold that changes the taste of the grapes in a beneficial way, think of cheese as an example of good mold].

"There are one thousand officially designated growing areas in the state [California], otherwise known as AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), although many are not well known." I'm sure they're not.  In 2009 the Wine Institute listed only 108 AVAs in California!  That leaves hundreds that apparently only Ms. Teague and her lucky protege are privy to.  This is a ridiculous error that might incorrectly emerge during a live interview question and answer segment but should never have been published.  

Stay tuned for Part IV...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part II

Ms. Teague speaks of Muscadet's lack of longevity twice, once referring to the wine as being "meant to last for a season or two" and then saying to "drink it as young as possible."  This is the conventional wisdom but I have had occasion to taste 10 year-old versions that are exceptional and still have the verve and crispness expected from the appellation.  Most people will drink them young for their intense freshness and brightness, which pairs wonderfully with all manner of seafood, especially shellfish but they shouldn't feel they need to check an expiration date like milk.  She is clearly aware of the possibility of wines not known for aging gracefully to surprise since she mentions a Soave producer in particular whose older vintage drank well.
She offers the following about Tasmania: "the only place in Australia cool enough to grow Pinot [Noir] properly."  Inexplicably says later, "Yarra Valley - A newly fashionable region outside Melbourne touted for its suitability for Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley shows promise."  Perhaps the professional editor should have hired a professional editor.
Her Bordeaux confusion (see part I of this review) continues when she mentions Chateau Petrus, "probably the most famous Bordeaux in the world made entirely from Merlot."  This is a minor quibble of mine, but a simple Google search returned nearly 250,000 results discussing the blend of the wine.  While the wine is, sometimes, 100% Merlot, the Chateau itself states (the second result in the search) that 5% Cabernet Franc is also planted at the estate.
"Peter would never see an oak-aged Rielsing."  Only if you select his wines for him forever.  In Germany and Alsace, wines are routinely aged in older oak barrels (often called neutral oak) which allows the wines to breathe, soften and integrate but does not impart a woody aroma or flavor.  I am baffled that Ms. Teague does not know this as a wine writer.
A slap at Cabernet Franc describes it as "a sort of poor cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon."  I think this is unfair to a very interesting variety but that is a matter of opinion and taste.  From a genealogical standpoint her statement confuses.  Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.  This does not eliminate the possibility of the former being a "poor cousin" to its own offspring, but it is unlikely in most of the civilized world.
Pronunciation of wine terms, regions and producers can be challenging (see this earlier post) but it is not made easier by teachers being wrong.  "Even Peter had heard of Yquem (which he initially mispronounced, as many do, by leading with the d', which is actually silent."  The name of the Chateau is d'Yquem which means 'House of Yquem.'  She does get the Yquem portion correct ("EEE-kem"), however, the d', while soft and blending into Yquem, is NOT silent.  If you doubt this, click here.  I am, again, amazed Ms. Teague is unaware of this and that she didn't check her information before publishing.

More coming soon in Part III

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part I

In a continuing series of wine book reviews, this one seems incredibly important to me for reasons that will become clear as you read.  The author, Lettie Teague, has impressive credits: wine columnist and editor at Food And Wine, columnist at The Wall Street Journal and author of two books.  I respect her credentials, enjoy her writing and love the concept behind Educating Peter.
Ms. Teague records her efforts to teach Peter Travers, Rolling Stone movie critic, about wine.  Presenting a wine lesson in the form of a story, rather than a slew of charts, dry facts and Q and A may have been the best brainstorm for a wine book ever!
After reading it I wanted to recommend this to everyone wanting to learn about wine but felt a handout was necessary containing a list of things that needed fixing and clarification.  There are many incomplete lessons – even granted the basic introductory way in which they are written.  Errors of omission exist.  Even worse, to my mind, are the declarative statements that are simply not accurate or dismissive.  These are disappointing coming from someone who writes about wine for a living and, at least in this book, assumes a teaching role.  Wine is confusing enough without "experts" irresponsibly pontificating and throwing out absolutes that misrepresent (and should perhaps have a counter argument). 
Admittedly, some of my gripes focus on fine points about wine but that seems reasonable since Ms. Teague claims to teach "How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert" with this book. If you want more reviews, many unfavorable about the general approach and the writer, please feel free to peruse here, but I will focus strictly on the wine side, offering rebuttal and a few corrections. 
Lots of food is mentioned, including the all too often written, 'This wine would be good with food.'  Agreed.  It is one of the main reasons we drink wine.  Which food?  Why?  None of the wines is tasted with food but supposedly Mr. Travers is learning how to match during his education.
To start with the most glaring error is a question from Peter's "Final Exam," 45 questions designed to see what he learned. 
From page 234: "Which of these grapes is not grown in Bordeaux?  
A) Cabernet Sauvignon
B) Semillon
C) Gamay Noir
D) Sauvignon Blanc"
The answer, according to Ms. Teague, is D.  Apparently she is unfamiliar with white Bordeaux, made from predominantly Sauvignon Blanc in its dry form.  A smaller percentage of the same grape appears in the sweet versions.  Gamay Noir, C, is the grape behind Beaujolais, which also starts with a B but is not grown in Bordeaux.  

More in Part II coming soon...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

St. Emilion: Shaken and Stirred

We view France's ranking and classification system for wine as strong, reliable and mostly above reproach.  I even commented about single vineyards not being as relevant in the U.S. as in Burgundy in my last post.  However, there have been crises in France's long history of wine.  This one may not rank in the upper echelon but it certainly has stirred up some emotions.  
Wine Spectator has published a story about a lawsuit regarding the 2012 reclassification of St. Emilion.  One of the biggest complaints of Bordeaux in the Medoc (the Left Bank) remains the fact that the ranking are based on the classification of 1855!  You remember 1855, right?  The year the Panama Railroad first connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The year David Livingstone became the first European to see Victoria Falls.  
At least St. Emilion classified their appellation, on the Right Bank, in 1954 and updates it every decade or so.  The most recent has spurred a lawsuit, alleging a fix in determining the rankings.  The fact that shenanigans may have occurred is hardly surprising to me.  Get a higher ranking and, with rare exception, you can charge more for your wine.  Check out some first growth prices if you doubt this at all.  
The reason I mention this controversy at all is for this paragraph from the article:
"According to the lawyer, the classification was inexplicably weighted in favor of the Premiers Grands Crus—the tasting component only counted for 30 percent of the final grade for the Premier Grands Crus, yet counted for 50 percent of the final grade for the Grand Cru Classé châteaus."
Go ahead, read that again...let it sink in.  The actual wine only counts for half and less than a third of the final ranking.  Never mind that the higher ranking counted the tasting less, focus on how little it means to either one.  This is why I don't buy Bordeaux...or designer clothes or shoes.  My money is spent on what is in the bottle, not what other people think about me based on what's on the outside of the bottle.  
Bordeaux continues to stumble and the ones that suffer are not the big producers with legions of status-seeking buyers but the small operations, perhaps making truly good quality wine at a good price but without the benefit of a good lobbyist.