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Rating The Wall Street Journal Wine Column Redux

By Charles Olken

Welcome back. Halftime is over. Let’s take a look at the highlights of the first half.

The WSJ wine column, not exactly my favorite over the years for a certain smug, holier-than-thou attitude, recently outdid itself in an article by Lettie Teague. Ms. Teague identified ten bits of common wisdom” and put them to the test of reason. Her views surprised me more than a little. Common sense, a feeling for the everyday wine drinker and a clear willingness to call pomposity for what it is earn a loud Hosanna in this corner.

The first half in full detail is contained in the blog entry immediately following this one—so cast your eyes downward to get caught up as needs be. As for me, I am happy to trudge forth and explain further why her column rates a solid 92 in my book—and that is before grade inflation in ratings. Here then are pith-filled examinations of Ms. Teague’s items numbered six to ten in her column.

Great Wine Must Be Ageworthy
There are things in the Teague columns, and this topic is one of them, that have me slicing the baby, so to speak, and awarding her nine points out of ten when what I really mean is eight points out of ten on the one hand and ten of ten on the other.

Let me explain. Very few people have more keenly, more understandably put into words why one might wish to age wine. Put very simply, some wines achieve majesty, grandeur, nuance as they get older. To quote Ms. Teague, “a wine that transforms with age, that not only endures but improves and evolves into something more nuanced and complex, can objectively be said to have merit. I think this saying is not only true, it has stood the test of time”. So, ten points here.

Indeed!! It is why my cellar is bulging—because when a wine truly reaches a great peak, it offers a level excitement that it can offer when young. But, and this is where Teague loses me. There is a suggestion that young wine cannot be great, and that is simply wrong. Too many people in the wine world dismiss exceptional young wine as “not good enough” because it is exceptional when young. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling (except for some late harvest bottlings), at their best, can be quite thrilling without having to prove themselves over the decades. Eight of ten here—and I am not about to give up my cellar.

Old World Wines Are Better Than New World Wines
Frankly, I expected Teague to agree with that notion. She is a New Yorker, after all, and I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard New Yorkers diss California wines for no reason other than they are not made in Old World styles. So she gets a grudging seven of ten for at least acknowledging that New World wines can be good but then taking it back by saying that they have to be made according to “Old World sensibility”.

I thought we put this nonsense to bed back in 1976, and then again in 2000 when we tried the same wines that won the Paris tasting back then and they again outpointed the French. Dear Lettie, there is no need to pussyfoot around on this. Judge wine as wine, not by some preconceived preference for provenance. California, Washington, Australia are not France, Germany and Italy. It is about time for wine practitioners to stop demanding that all wines be made as if they were grown in Burgundy et al.

Sommeliers Only Like Obscure Wines
Okay. I have a quibble or two with the way Ms. Teague has approached this subject. She quotes a N. Y sommelier who observes that “only sommeliers who want to feel superior to their customers feel that way”, and then takes a very long time before finally getting to the essential truth, for which she gets a full ten of ten, “Bad sommeliers only like obscure wines”.

Now, to be fair to Ms. Teague, she did truly get this one right. I only wish that she had said something like “these folks are on an ego trip” in which they compete with each other to see who can offer the most obscure wine lists.

For my part, I want wine lists that are blendings of good wines with which I and most other wine lovers are familiar and newer, less known bottlings for moments when one wants to experiment. After all, dining should be exciting, but it is the rare restaurant, no matter how many Michelin stars it has earned, that serves food I have never heard of. It really comes down to this for me. I judge wine lists by the quality of the wines they offer, by the likelihood that my well-educated, well-heeled neighbors can read the list and not feel like they are reading Greek AND by the interesting obscurities the list has to offer.

Red Wine Drinkers Are More Sophisticated Than White Wine Drinkers
Lettie is too kind by half on this one. Anyone with decent understanding of wine knows that Chardonnays, Rieslings, sparkling wines, late harvest wines can get be pretty damn interesting and complex. She blames part of the problem on men who somehow think white wines are for women, but sexism is not the answer here. Prejudice is. More red wine goes in cellars than white for a simple reason. Reds often need more time to reach their full potential while whites typically have fewer obstacles to enjoyment like tannin and unresolved acidities. Time to reach full enjoyment does not make wine better on its own. This all goes back to the notions about ageworthy wines being great and to Old World wines, often needing time to become pleasant to drink, being better than New World Wines. Still, in the final analysis, she says “this perception is false”, and she is right.

Wine Is Hard
One could award ten points here, as I do, or none, as I almost did. Of course, wine is hard if you want to make a study of it. So is skiing, flying a plane, hitting a golf ball, making a perfect soufflé, managing a portfolio. For goodness sake, even planning a traveling vacation to Europe or to Montana and Wyoming out of San Francisco is demanding. If you want easy, go watch Sponge Bob and you can give up thinking. But, I look at my neighbors and see them knowing enough to buy good wine in restaurants with good lists and they do not make wine hard.

I have made wine “hard” because I have chosen to do so. A neighbor recently complained to me about going to local restaurant, one that is good, not great, with a menu that is modern but nowhere near avant garde and wanting a glass of Merlot with dinner. Not a Merlot among fifty wines. That restaurant made wine hard. “Bad” sommeliers make wine hard.

Wine can be as hard as one wants to make it. But wine need not be “hard”. It need only require about as much attention as learning to drive. After that, it becomes hard only when people make it hard.

The Fifth Quarter
Game over. High marks to Lettie Teague overall. I may not agree with all she said or her logic, but I admit to no small admiration for the stances Ms. Teague has taken on the side of balance and thoughtfulness. And I am having a bunch of lapel badges made up that read “Only bad sommeliers offer obscure wine lists”. For that idea, I am much indebted to Ms. Teague.


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No Subject
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:2/27/2015 3:55:47 PM

Great commentary, Charlie. Especially about the obscure wine lists from restaurants that make such a fuss about their local food purveyors. And then refuse to carry local wines. Incredible.

Terry Rooney


Bad Sommeliers
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/27/2015 5:45:55 PM

Yes, Terry, it makes no sense to me to find restaurants with locavore food preferences loudly trumpeted on their websites and then find virtually no CA wines on their lists.

I have reached the point at which I simply refuse to patronize them. The funny thing is that I almost always order non-CA wine in restaurants because I taste so much of it on a day-to-day basis. But, when a restaurants shows zero respect for our wines, I choose to go some place else.

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