John JuergensWine experts are not like us

People like to refer to me as a wine "expert," whatever that is. And when they call me a wine connoisseur, I correct them and tell them I'm really just a "common sewer" of wine. I try to discourage these uppity kinds of labels because they tend to get in the way of one of my primary messages, which is that wine doesn't have to be mysterious, and you don't have to rely on other people to tell you what you should drink. Drink what you like.

I decided to write about this after receiving a scathing insult about a year ago from a supreme wine snob. This person wasn't even close to being an expert, but he could make Miles from the movie "Sideways" look like a shy novice. Without going into all the whiney details ... oh, what the hell, it's a pretty good story with a moral at the end.

I got to go on a wine and food lover's dream vacation last year to Southern Italy, where I stayed in a Mediterranean beach-front house with friends from Brussels. They have been doing this for many years, so there is something of an international community in residence during the summer, and they are all about relaxation, food, and wine. My friends insisted on parading me around as some great American professore di vino, which was kind of embarrassing, but got me invited to a lot of great meals and too much so-so wine.

One of the retired locals, originally from Denmark, grew up with privilege in a very wealthy banking family, but has been cursed with a rigidly Euro-centric view of the world, particularly when it comes to wine. As far as he is concerned, drinkable wine can come only from an area defined roughly by the global coordinates between 41 degrees to 50 degrees North, and 10 degrees West to 8 degrees East. (And you thought you would never need all that grade school geography.) I could tell from the moment I met him that he was going to test me.

Basically, what happened was he brought to a dinner a white Italian wine, which he pronounced to be one of the absolutely best wines produced anywhere in Italy, and for which he paid 40€, or about $50. With a false air of secrecy he rationed the wine among only those guests whom he deemed sophisticated enough to appreciate it.

Now, I have tasted a lot of bad wines in my career - including a brown, 12-year old red Zinfandel whose owner is still expecting it to "come around" - and this wine tasted more like a watered down dry sherry with a hint of fresh fruit, but not much. It is rare that I can't find something nice to say about a wine, and I truly did struggled to understand this wine and to find the words to compliment the gentleman on it. But, apparently, my efforts were not satisfactory and he was offended.

Later during the meal, I produced what I believed to be an excellent example of a California red Zinfandel, with all the big, jammy fruit flavors, 15+ percent alcohol, the whole nine yards. I did this because I was certain most of the people in this region would never have much chance of tasting such a wine, and I thought they might find it interesting. Well, I'm here to tell you that you do not mess with Italians' perception of what wine is supposed to be like. They are not interested in other cultures' wines, so leave it at home. Take Maker's Mark for gifting.

They had no clue what to do with the Zinfandel, and the table got very quiet, as if I had told them I really didn't care for pasta or tomatoes. However, while everyone else at the table was polite about the wine, our local wine snob pronounced the Zin as a work of the devil, that it was absolute rubbish and did not even deserve to be called wine. How dare I bring such an insult to the table! Of course, he wasn't standing in his chair ranting all of this, but making his comments more sotto voce in Italian for the people at his end of the table.

I knew something was going on down there, but couldn't quite make it out. Later, one of my friends told me the whole story, including our snob's finally assessment, "Obviously, there is a big difference between an expert and a good amateur." I will never forget that comment.

Even though I had the measure of our snob, this really cut me to the quick, and made me think hard about wine expertise. I have ruminated on this experience for almost a year now, and have reflected on my exposure to what I consider some true wine "experts." Because of how I managed to weasel my way into some of the inner workings of the wine industry, I have met and judged in wine competitions with internationally recognized wine people, including several Masters of Wine.

I have watched these people at work, and, for the most part, that is what wine tasting is to them, work. And, you know what, it seemed to me that many of them don't or can't really enjoy wine that much anymore. It is what they do 9 to 5 and how they make a living. They slice and dice it, find all the tiny flaws, but then can't seem to put it all back together to enjoy the wine for what it is. In other words, if it isn't perfect, they can't drink it. What a shame.

So, even though I got slammed pretty hard by a consummate wine snob to whom I shouldn't have given a second thought, I have to thank him because he really did me a big favor. The moral of the story: If I would have to be like those "experts" I have come into contact with, I would much rather remain a "good amateur" so that I can enjoy a wide range of wines, defects and all. Most wine experts aren't like us, and thank goodness for that. Don't be intimidate by them, but have pity on them, because they must be tortured people.

Wine picks of the week.

This week I have three wines that make for easy summer sipping and go with all sorts of warm weather foods, and none of them are white.

First is what I consider to be a true American rosè made by those naughty folks in Napa who make the Ménage a Trois red and white wines. To paraphrase the wine maker, "It is a classy carnival in your mouth with a fruit-laden roller coaster ride of strawberries, raspberries, and flowers with a smooth silky finish." The wine is a sensuous blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Gewurztraminer, which makes it taste like everything a White Zinfandel wants to be, but with a depth of complexity the Zin could never achieve. It has a bit of up-front sweetness that is quickly balanced out with fine, crisp acidity that brings out incredible fruit flavors. I tried this wine with every sort of food group I could find, and it went with everything. I'm talking about everything from appetizers to fish and meat, salad, any tomato-based dish, spicy Mexican and Asian foods and dessert. It even blended great with a mouthful of Skittles! Now that is what I call a flexible wine. At about $12 it costs almost twice as much as some White Zins, but it is three times the wine.

Next is another great value wine from Spain called Borsao. It is blend of 75 percent Grenache and 25 percent Tempranillo, which gives it a bright aromas and flavors of red cherries laced with a bit of sage and thyme and a candied apple finish. Although the wine appears to be a macho hombre because of its deep purple color, it really has a light to medium touch on the palate. It has no rough edges and very soft tannins. It goes well with beef and chicken, and tomato-based pasta but not anything with too much sugar in it. It is good by itself, but its dusty finish will dry you out pretty quickly.

The next wine is another easy-going wine from the Trentino region of Northern Italy called Teroldego Rotaliano. Red wines from this region tend to have unique characteristics of rich fruit, earthy tar, and savory flavors of black current and earthy mushrooms backed by occasional herbal notes and the scent of violets. This 2001 specimen from Mezzacorona has those characteristics with a bit of mineral, mushroom, and spice quality. Although some might consider this a big, full-bodied wine that is round and supple, its flavors are transparent. That is, the wine is not blocky on the palate and it is easy to detect layers of complexity, which makes it seem softer and lighter in style. As you might expect, this wine was made to go with tomato-based pasta dishes, but will go great with robust chicken dishes, beef, and big, ripe cheeses. About $16.

As one of my assistant wine tasters put it so well, all of these wines are really good because "none of them bite back at you." And they all taste a bit better with a touch of chill on them; about 30 minutes in the refrigerator for the reds and two hours for the rosè. Cheers.

June 2007

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