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Thursday Thorns
Acidity and Bitterness Are The Keys To Wine Service With Food—So Says Lettie Teague

By Stephen Eliot

The vote is in. Italian wines are the best “food wines” in the world... at least according to Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal. Wines from France and America, from Germany and Spain, from Portugal and Argentina need not apply.

According to Teague, Italians drink wine with food often, “perhaps more often than anyone else”. Apparently, practice makes perfect, and since Italians are, according to Teague, the most practiced folks at drinking wine with food, their wines must therefore be best. I suspect that Italy’s neighbors to the North and West just might argue with both the conclusion and premise.

Italians wines’ mealtime brilliance is attributed to the “fact” that they have the twin virtues of high acidity and bitterness, both of which are deemed to be the keys to success of any successful food and wine match. “Italians love acidity the way Americans love sugar or the way the French love a wine that only they can pronounce”, and “the Italians love bitterness seemingly as much as they do acidity.”

Ah, there she goes again. The old clichés are summoned like calling cards, and they get tossed around with a vehemence that assumes we have learned nothing in the food revolution of the last forty or fifty years. If you ask Teague, the French are stubbornly superior in their thinking, and America is populated by Coca Cola-dulled palates that are either beyond redemption or still waiting to see the light. Oak is bad and acid is good. I have wearied of such stale and stereotypical pronouncements, and every time they are rolled out in support of some new thesis, I cannot resist sarcasm…and the article in question invites it with malice.

Think about the comparisons. Nebbiolo better than Côte Rotie. Aglianico better than Paulliac. Nero D’Avola better than Burgundy. Chianti better than Loire Reds—okay, may she wins a point there.

But understand what Ms. Teague is trying to say. Whether or not we agree is beside the point, and even if as I would like to think, her rather sweeping and simplistic brushstrokes were attempts at humor as much as anything else, they are, at their heart, demeaning and dismissive of anything and anyone other than her darling of the this case, Italy.

It strikes me as a bit ironic that while the new electronic world has fostered unbridled democracy and sanctification of individual opinion -- whatever you like is right, there are no right and wrong answers, you are the best critic – here is a piece of “professional” wine writing has gone the other way and incites a certain superior wine-geek political correctness. It is not enough to inform, describe, recommend and get downright excited about a wine or wines. In this case, there seems to be an abiding need to hurl stones and some degree of damnation at everything else. Italians wines are in part “better” because they are not California or French, and, in so saying, it follows that since Italian wines succeed by dint of their vibrant acidity, French and American wines are therefore listless and dull. What is listless and dull, however, is this kind of specious logic.

My dear Mrs. Teague, I appreciate that you are trying to tell me what you like at the dinner table. Indeed, I encourage and applaud such an approach. Challenge my thinking. Make a case for your beliefs. But, do not waste my time telling me about the inherent failings of everything else. Wine appreciation does not work that way.


It is a Murdoch property
by John Kelly
Posted on:9/28/2011 9:44:49 AM

Stephen - when has anyone in the Fox media empire ever done more than throw brickbats? Teague may have a subtle and nuanced view of the world of wine, but I doubt her editors are interested. I'm done with criticizing any of the inane pontifications on wine appearing in the WSJ, either under Lettie Teague's byline or Jay McInerney's.

oh boy...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:9/28/2011 9:51:18 AM

Forget the food/wine nonsense. I get lost as soon as someone refers to the generic "Italian wines."

24 regions with specific differences that put out thousands of wines and a supposed wine writer refers to them all as one entity?


by TomHill
Posted on:9/28/2011 10:00:14 AM


For an article attacking/defending cliches...Lettie's article is pretty loaded with cliches. Like:

"A wine aged in new oak is hard to pair with food. An oaky white, for example, is best suited to buttery dishes—and olive oil is, of course, the Italian emollient."

I think there are some areas of Italy, like the Valle d'Aosta, that might dispute that image.

   Like almost all wine generalizations...there are so many exceptions to any generalization as to make the generalization virtually worthless.



Sarcasm good!
by Sherman
Posted on:9/28/2011 10:20:53 PM

"Sarcasm is the body's natural defense against stupidity." The t-shirt I bought my girlfriend for her birthday a few weeks ago sums it up rather well, don't you think? ;)

Italian Wines
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:9/29/2011 1:10:29 PM

Reading such crap drives me crazy. I am happy the WSJ still covers wine. I thought Dottie and John were a little too amateurish for the audience, but Jay and Lettie are not a lot better.


by Jim Francis
Posted on:9/29/2011 8:34:39 PM

Nicely done, Stephen.  While everyone does have an opinion, everyone also has know. I wish we could return the positive approach you touch upon regarding sharing our opinions.

Marshall McLuhan's "Gutenberg made everyone a reader.  Xerox makes everyone a publisher." can, of course, be extended to "the internet makes everyone an author, an editor, and a critic - anonymously."

Could not the role of a group with some wine experience be more like a librarian, or what I used to call a "record shop" owner?  The job, then, is to know every book in the library, or every record in the store, and direct readers or listeners to the 'aisle' best suited to their taste?  Similarly, with wine experience, when people want something different, using some common reference points (which, unfortunately, barely exist), direct them to some wines they can try - and decide - for themselves whether it suits them.

This actually is a plea for more true wine merchants, and fewer super stores with stack-n-sell by the numbers - the numbers being 90 .

It is ironic that Ms. Teague sings the praises of the Italian synergy of food and wine.  Yet, after a stint Food and Wine Magazine, an American Express Company, she unfortunately found herself like so much albacore - canned.

Thanks for the comments
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:9/30/2011 12:05:37 AM

Yes, as both Thomas and Tom point out most wine generalizations are next to worthless, but I am less bothered that professional journalists make them than by the ways in which they are then used as an unquestioned premise for proving one's own golden calf superior to all others. I would ask my colleagues in the wine-writing craft to ease up on the insults to those who might see a different truth, and to end the tiresome need of demeaning whole categories of wines with generalizations that are as ridiculous as those they create in applauding their favorites. Advocacy, as I see it, is not made more convinging by hurling invective at everything else. Jim, I like your notion of the "record shop" owner, and, yes, I very much think it applies to a good wine merchant...and wine writers, for that matter. If am going to discuss my likes and dislikes, I had better know a good deal of what there is too know if my opinions are to have any usefulness. And, while there are, in fact, some poorly made stinkers that need calling out, my first concern is describe as clearly as possible in words that people will understand what the general character, structure and style of wine is. I do like some wines more than others, most of us do, but I do not feel the need to justify my likings but deeming those that are different as irredeemable crap made by cynical and/or inept fools.

Hooray Jim!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/30/2011 9:04:54 AM

I was reading Jim's comment all the while thinking, "Well he needs a good wine merchant". There are still a few of us out there, honest merchants that buy wines we know our customers will like, never posting scores or saying, "Well it got 90 points"  in fact I couldn't even tell you what any of our wines have scored. I taste wines and the first thing I am thinking of, after deciding that the wine is sound, is "Do I know at least 6 people that would dig this?". Doesn't matter if I personally like it or not.

The Word
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/30/2011 9:20:50 AM

Hi Sam--

I do agree that wine merchants who truly ply their trade with care and concern for their customers are needed in this biz of ours. But, wine stores like yours are just one part of the equation. Lots of wine gets sold in bigger stores, over the internet, through mailing lists, in big box stores, and those purchasers also need, at times, some form of guidance. No point in blaming scores. It is not the score that is the problem. It is the system that sells most wine without a Sam Dugan standing in the aisle guiding the purchaser.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:9/30/2011 10:13:25 AM

Charlie My Dear, I don't blame scores for anything, never have. I just don't use them nor does my store. In fact I have spoken up on the side of wine reviewers in that silly debate. I know how small a fish me and my store are in the world wine selling stage but I believe in what we do and I know that our customers value it. Not looking to take over, (more business would be nice though....ugh) matter of fact, with the kind of small production wines my store stocks couldn't support it. Just wanted to send Jim a high-five, (although I don't do that) for appreciating the kind of business I've spent the past 15 years helping to build. So thanks Jim!

Praise is not necessarily criticism
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:9/30/2011 10:59:24 AM

I read Teague's piece, Mr. Eliot, and I have to say:  although she praises Italian wines and their food versatility  to the skies, I'm not really reading into it that in doing so she's also criticiizing other wines of the world for being less food-worthy.  I think you may be proteting too much.

It's a fine point, and on that basis I'd rather give Teague her due for making some very good and instructive points.  For instance, not too many journalists point out the advantages of heightened bitterness.  And to say that Barbera is idea with food because of its higher acidity is not necesarily saying that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are not as good with food.  They also match food, but in their own ways, which is how I read Teague's "thesis."

by Jim Francis
Posted on:9/30/2011 1:59:10 PM

A person's perspective always - not almost always - shapes opinion. Perspective with wine is physical, intellectual (OK, let's just say 'mental') and in some cases, spiritual.  (A wine shared during a marriage proposal is carried to a height neither the palate nor the parietal lobe can attain.)

Perspective is dynamic, not static.  Have you ever brushed your teeth?  Have you ever sipped orange juice?  Would you suggest a proper order to these actions? Does the perspective change? What if you were an acid-freak? Or Italian?

Perspective is diverse.

Hence the glory of this column.  And also, the shame I feel, as I know almost all of you.  The shame for the hypocrisy of not using my real name - at the same time trying to tag on to Marshall McLuhan with "the internet makes everyone an author, an editor, and a critic - anonymously ."  Guilty as charged.

I have been in the wine community for over 40 years, as a wine merchant, a winermaking equipment supplier, a winery manager, and now, someone afraid to use my name because - as we are showing in these posts - it can be damaging to one's business or career.

To Sam, I say keep doing what you are doing! We need  thousands of you!  High five back at ya'.

To Charlie, it is a consumer, as fearful as I, to be seen as wrong.  There is no wrong.  There also is no best. Yet we have been an industry that nurtures a 100-is-best/I've-got-it-you-don't culture.  Why?  It's easier.  If you shop by price/numbers without Sam in the aisle, you get what you don't pay for: "There ain't no free."  Who wants to read ALL those books?  Listen to all those records?  When you can have the Greatest Hit.

To Stephen, this is one of your best columns - I give it Three Puffs.

To Rodney King, I never thought I'd quote you, but, "Can't we all just get along?"

Most of all, to Lettie Teague, my apologies.  The Albacore/canned line was a cheap shot.  I am most ahamed of that.  If I was that funny I'd be writing for SNL.  I'm sorry.

Those of you who know me, know how to get in touch with me.

Re: Praise is not necessarily criticism
by Re: Praise is not necessarily criticism
Posted on:9/30/2011 3:32:45 PM

1. When you say something is "best", are you not relegating the rest to lesser status? And, when creating such paradigms, it is arguable that even omission carries a certain air of criticism.

2. No, praise is not necessarily criticism, unless, as in this case, it comes with a couple of nasty asides aimed at those not worthy of praise -- the tacit French snobbery and American love of sugar. And that, not Teague's excitement with Italian wines, was my point!

I have no issues with Teague's enthusiasm for Italian wines and food, and I am not bothered by the "generalization" of Italian wines that has ruffled some feathers. I just wish that the "better because" conclusions had not been included. I simply cannot read the piece and come away with the idea, as you state, that Cabernet and Merlot are equally good with their own ways. I mean, the article is entitled "The World's Best Food Wines", is it not?

Now, I do think that Teague's transgression is minor, but the implicit "reasoning" behind it and the way in which the arguement is made are what rankles me. She is not half so foolish and dripping with condescension as a good many other voices in the business of late. She just happened to be in the headlines today.

Re: Praise is not necessarily criticism
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:9/30/2011 3:34:33 PM

Oops...the previous posting was from me!

Re: Perspective
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:9/30/2011 3:44:34 PM

"Jim" --

Thanks for the "puffs" (even if I suspect that you know they are "stars".)

 And, I must confess that in the wee hours when writing the piece that I too kept hearing Mr. King's voice as well.

I believe that Eric Asimov once wrote something to the effect that wine's first purpose was to foster friendship. I would like to see deabte and literature about it doing the same.

Las Estrellitas
by Jim Francis
Posted on:9/30/2011 9:36:34 PM

Puffs, atars ...before Shanken and Parker, when it was only Grapevine, Finnegan and you (CG) we called 'em 'farts.  Heck, I was just being polite.

Now, more shame...

With regard to wine's first purpose, I have paraphrased Mr. Natural, from the 'ol Berkeley Barb days - "Good people will get you through a bad bottle much better than a good bottle will get you through bad people."

In the morning, an ass is still an ass...

Thank you, my friend, for the sprirted communication!

by TomHill
Posted on:10/2/2011 4:50:44 PM

Jim sez: "The Albacore/canned line was a cheap shot".

Don't know if you've had any of the canned tuna from Portugal & Spain of late, but the stuff is damned good. The label says As Do Mar or Ortiz, not Chicken-Of-The-Sea or Star-Kist. But it's first rate product. Good enough for CortiBros shelves.



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