Friday, September 26, 2008


The subject of value wines came up recently on a wine Web forum.

In both my career in the wine business and in my at-home wine consumption I’ve probably spent more time seeking what I consider value wines than I’ve spent seeking whatever it is we call the other wines: excess, premium, top-notch, status, I don’t know.

I suppose when wine is a hobby the named wines of the world, the status products, the ones that a hobbyist “must have” are important. But hobbies like that can be quite expensive. Even those of us in the wine business have to think twice about the cost of wine, especially wine priced first in euros and then converted to dollars.

My wife says that she’ll know when I’m about to die; it will be two seconds after I refuse a glass of wine and a meal. Being that intent on consuming wine means that wine is not my hobby, which accounts for the relative paucity of the “great named” wines that have gone down my gullet when compared to the volume of daily quaffers, value wines, and general nice stuff that I’ve consumed—with dinner.

Years ago, learning wine meant reading about it—not about its ratings, but about wine, from writers who took us on a journey of exploration rather than on a ride through their palates. What some of us learned is that, like most anything else, there’s a hierarchy to wine. That lesson never meant to me that something on one end of the spectrum is worth more than something on the other end of the spectrum, not unless I’ve tasted it and it touched me. It meant that some wines are regarded one way and other wines are regarded another way—end of story.

As I began to learn the nature of the establishment and maintenance of the wine hierarchy I began to have questions about it, but I digress.

The first time I tasted a top hierarchy wine, Chateau Petrus, the wine touched me. It seemed worth what people paid for it—other people, of course, as I couldn’t afford it.

Likewise, the first time I tasted a lesser Bordeaux, a 1982 Chateau Coufran, it touched me, too. It was a wine that I could afford more regularly, and that about the wine touched me all the more; It was a value wine, since it expressed 1982 well and it did so without me having to take out a mortgage to try it. But that Coufran may not be a value wine to others today, because it costs well over the $14 or so that I paid for it two decades ago.

I just finished taking a look at a book called The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. He’s the fellow who recently made a splash concerning wine list awards that Wine Spectator gives out.

Despite its title, The Wine Trials is not about people caught perpetrating frauds. The book is about experiments that Goldstein, et al, performed which he claims prove that high-priced wines are rated and prized not because of their quality but because of their status.

I won’t go into the evidence Goldstein presents to prove his case, I’ll just say that it isn’t a revelation to me—I’ve witnessed the phenomenon many times, but I’ve finally learned to shut up about it when it happens in my presence.

Most wine hobbyists don’t know what a blind tasting is—many don’t accept its value—but that is the only way for Goldstein to have proven his point, and that is why I value the results.

Still, people generally aren’t interested in being told that critics successfully manipulate them, never mind that their own brains are likely manipulating them, so even after doing the research, Goldstein’s findings will produce detractors, and many of them are likely to be wine hobbyists.

Non-hobbyists probably like the idea that lower priced wines can please people as much or more than the status giants. The idea has value, and it makes them value wines.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Out of the mouth of wives...

Out of the mouths of wives often come illuminating thoughts.

Last night, out of Vinho Verde for our before-dinner drink, I asked my wife if she would like a Prosecco instead.


I ran downstairs and found the remaining Prosecco (Zardetto) in our cellar.

Although it is not the Prosecco that has pleased me most, I like Zardetto’s version of the bubbly. No matter. This blog entry is not about Prosecco that pleases, although to get to my point I do have to tell you how we felt about the Zardetto.

I was preparing duck seared breast with a maple/soy/wine/garlic/onion sauce, with rice and olives on the side.

There’s some preparation to the sauce and also to the duck, which I rub with soy/garlic and white pepper and then coat with a dusting of flour. Sipping the aperitif wine while working is fully in order, and for that purpose, I like the wine to be fresh and lively, with a bite that will tease my appetite.

Prosecco is both the name of a grape and two wine styles produced in the Veneto region of Italy. The wine is either frizzante, a fizzy still wine or it is spumante, a fully sparkling wine.

In either case, the wines are generally light, fruity, a touch sweet, and nicely acidic at the finish. The Zardetto tastes somewhere between a 7-Up and Schweppes Tonic, but on a higher plane; its bubbles seem more gentle than a Charmat sparkling wine process usually throws at you (see the link below).

In short, the Prosecco was exactly what I wanted while cooking—a fine alternative to Vinho Verde.

Somewhere between when I dusted the duck breast with flour and added flour to thicken the sauce that was cooking, my wife came into the kitchen. She pointed at the Zardetto bottle and asked, “Why don’t we have something like this produced in America and at this price?”

The price of a well-made Prosecco is between $13 and $15 a bottle.

It is a good question, to which I have no answer.

Certainly, we have the technology for Charmat wines. They are on our market and for a lot, lot less than $15. But are they as fresh, lively, biting, and pleasing as Prosecco? Not to me.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve tasted an American Charmat process wine, and that’s because I’ve hated most of them. With bubbles as big and seemingly as damaging as brass marbles, plus the cloying, often limp quality of the wines, I simply gave up trying.

On second thought: why can’t I find an American version of Vinho Verde at $5 that is as pleasing as the Portuguese wine?

I know that everything is costing us more these days, but I also wonder if the general cost of American wine, relative to quality, has been split dangerously into camps. For real money, you get real wine; for small money, you get barely drinkable wine.

Of course, I know the real answer to my wife’s question, but I hate thinking about the part of the domestic wine scene that has to do with supply and demand. It’s too depressing.

Oh, with the duck, we had Cannonau, from's Grenache.

Charmat Method

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


When we go out to dinner, my friends often look in my direction when the waiter comes around with the wine list in hand. Then, they tell me to order whatever I think is good, and at whatever price. They trust me—probably not a good idea, but they do anyway.

My usual response is to ask each what meal he or she plans to order. I’m trying to balance the varying orders with the offerings on the wine list. Generally, we wind up with red and white on the table and after a few oohs and aahs over the wine, everyone fills their glass with whichever wine they like best, damn the pairing with their food.

Last week, over dinner at the home of a friend, he served a Merlot from the Dolomiti of Italy. Boy, was I impressed by this non-wine geek’s selection.

The wine comes from the Dolomite Mountain range located in Northeastern Italy. It is an impressive mountain range, known by us for climbing and skiing more than for anything else, unless you are a wine person.

For wine people like I, who has visited the region, it is as exciting as visiting another mountainous ski area in Italy, Valtellina, the home of Sforzato, a red wine produced from the nebbiolo grape—in Valtellina Italian, sforzato means “strained,” a reference to the way the grapes are dried like raisins to make the intense wine, which is similar to Amarone produced in the Volpolicella region.

What makes these two regions, plus Piemonte located in the country’s Northwest, is that the mountains face due south; the sun beats down on them in all seasons, and that makes for intense red grape growing; hence, a fine Merlot from a mountainous region.

Merlot has been growing in Northeastern Italy for more than a century, yet we hear little about it, and we get to drink even less. This wine was a delight: bright, cherry-like acidic fruit qualities and with a medium body normally ascribed to mountainous wines that was accompanied not by powerful but by fine enough tannin structure to hold its own and to offer a lingering finish.

The wine is Mezzacorona 2005 Merlot (Imported by Prestige Wines, NY). It’s not a powerhouse wine, just a stable, good drinking Merlot that paired with skirt steak, and it cost my friend $10.

The skirt steak had been marinated in soy, garlic, and pepper. I liked it so much that I got me some of the wine and some skirt steak and tried them at home later on, and got the same result.

My friend is a wine person—not a geek. He loves wine with his dinner but he hasn’t much education concerning winemaking and he cares little about wine producers. He just likes wine with his dinner. He searches for wines unknown to him.

It makes me feel good that my friend sometimes asks for advice, not about a particular wine or wine and food pairings, but about general wine categories that he knows little or nothing about and that I think he should try. This time, he went after the Merlot without my help.

It’s what friends are for, and it's certainly nice to know that I can get through to someone in this world, but it isn't a given. Let me explain.

The wine forum called Wine Therapy is no more. The forum got its start, I believe, because some wine geeks wanted a place where they felt secure and, apparently, where they could act like the prep boys they may once have been, complete with four-letter ramblings just for the fun of seeing them on a screen, although without hearing the guffaws and sniffling that often accompanies an adolescent burst, I don’t understand the appeal of typing them out online.

No matter. They got what they wanted.

I made fun of Therapy, but I also participated once in a while. I’m no prude, I can take the snappy riffs of infantile swear-wording, and every so often, I felt the desire to enter into a conversation.

Admittedly, I can become a pest to those who seem to know all there is to know, because I am always asking questions. Immature people often take a question as a challenge to their knowledge rather than as, well, a question so that I might learn something or—heaven forbid—that I might be able to point out what I consider an error in thinking.

There were many problems with hackers getting into the Wine Therapy site, so a cabal got together and created a new site called Wine Disorder—don’t blame me for their penchant for cutesy monikers!

I call it a cabal because, well, that’s almost what they want us to think of them. They call themselves the politburo, and when you register to become a posting as opposed to just a lurking member, you must deal with the politburo—I don’t know by what method, but they decide who gets in and who does not. Guess who does not.

I think I became a pest on Therapy, although I hadn’t posted much at all. (I know I pissed off one fellow, but that was well before Therapy existed, and I thought he had accepted my explanation.) Whatever, the fact that I am barred from registering at Wine Disorder bothers me only in a small way—there are people there with whom I love engaging, but I can find them on a few other forum sites.

I am, however, disturbed by this particular cabal that speaks an egalitarian message about wine, but obviously holds an apparatchik mentality. But then, maybe I’m being too critical. After giving the situation some thought, it is to be expected.

If I remember correctly, schoolyard bullies loved to talk dirty and they also preferred to hang around together so as not to offend the gene pool. They didn’t let many outsiders in, and when they did let some in, it was mainly to torment and laugh at them with a disorderly display of giggling four-letter words and inside jokes.

I’m sure there is a place in this world for private clubs, but if you want to give it a shot, click below; before you do, brush up on the bawdy side of Kant and Kazantzakis: the cabal members may act like frat boys, but they are smart nonetheless.

Disorderly Conduct

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2008. All rights reserved.