Wine snobs, wine frauds

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Sommeliers have an important role at high class restaurants–if you’re ordering an expensive glass of wine, you want it to pair well with your meal. Can a wine expert really judge wines objectively, though?

Several studies seem to prove that wine tasting is highly subjective. Sure, we all have different taste buds and thus it would make sense that no one can agree on which wine is the “best.” But it was surely quite upsetting for French oenophiles during the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” when 11 judges (9 of which were French) rated Californian wines as better than French wines in a blind taste test.

There’s something gratifying about American wines being just as good if not better than French wines. But we can’t rest on those laurels too much. A more surprising study had 40 wine tasters describe a glass of white wine and a glass of red wine. The judges praised the red wine’s jamminess and appreciated the “crushed red fruit” taste. Too bad for them the “red” wine was the exact same glass of white wine with red food coloring added. Not one judge recognized that it was white wine.

Moral of the story: if you’re drinking a glass of wine and you think it’s good–no matter the vintage, varietal, or vineyard–you’re right. Enjoy.

The process of aging

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Last weekend I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin. As a parting gift, his dad gave us a bottle of wine that had been sculpturally tipped atop a CD collection for a few decades.

I don’t know if this will be any good, he told us. It’s from 1978.

My eyes lit up, remembering stories of rare and expensive vintages. Doesn’t all wine get better with age? I asked.

Apparently not. The wine that we buy most commonly is made to be drunk within a few years at most, if not immediately. Other wine truths that I took as gospel are similarly misleading. Such as: white wine shouldn’t be served directly from the refrigerator. It’s mean to be served cooler than reds, but not cold. And when we say that red wine should be served at room temperature, apparently this doesn’t mean the temperature in your kitchen, but the temperature in your wine cellar. Ya know, that thing where you store all of your rare and expensive vintages.

But back to the bottle at hand: I googled “Does all red wine get better with age?” Yahoo helpfully provided this response: “Sorry, most wines do not improve with age. The most common ones that would age are the big bold and assertive reds — like Cabernet Sauvignon.” The 1978? A Cabernet Sauvignon. Commence the snobbish drinking party.

A good book and a glass of wine

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It’s storming here in the Twin Cities–a perfect night to curl up with red wine and a good book. But what to pair? White would be required for The Old Man and the Sea or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (on second thought, maybe skip the wine when reading Dr. Seuss). Interview with a Vampire or any of them Twilighty books would necessitate a full-bodied red. And maybe a good port for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Luckily, others have also taken on this challenge. A woman who wrote a book about wine offers some key suggestionsThe Grapes of Wrath with a California zinfandel; The da Vinci Code with an Italian chianti; Memoirs of a Geisha with saké.

An inspired Pinterest user has outdone even this list, though, by creating an entire pinboard devoted to specific vintages matched with books (however, most of the wines are from the same vineyard which makes me suspicious about her connection). So, for instance, she pairs the Tapeña Garnacha, which she deems inexpensive, yet tasty, with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is a book you can find in any airport bookstore, yet I’ve heard is quite good. Her favorite wine, the Bogle Merlot 2009, which she calls smooth and satisfying, pairs with Immortality by Milan Kundera, her favorite book.

If you could pair a wine with a book, what would it be?

How to be a oenophile

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What you’ll need: a good nose…both for smelling and lifting above other people

Songlist: Red, Red Wine by Bob Marley

Further Reading: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Drink: A Social History of America by Andrew Barr

First, an ode to a word. Oenophile. Somehow seeming both perverse and esoteric, an oenophile sounds like the kind of person who should be isolated from society for being a weenie. And that might not be so far from the truth.

A oenophile is, of course, a connoisseur of wines. For the cultured American, “knowing” wines is a standard for becoming even more cultured. Ah, to waltz into a French restaurant and order the best vintage of a fine, yet obscure grape with barely a glance at the menu (and certainly not the price). Is there anything classier?

I admit to knowing practically nothing about wines. I know that some are white and some are red. I know the red ones, especially cheap ones it seems, turn my lips an embarrassing purple. I know that if I drink enough of the white ones, I get a buzz that my boyfriend has dubbed my “white wine noise.” I know the rosés are so girly-looking that not even I will touch them. I could not tell you, however, basic information about varietals or flavors. I cannot smell the specific bouquet or taste the complexities of fine wines. I do not remember wines I like enough to order them again.

Sometimes I see this as a benefit. My standard for drinkable wine is whether or not its in front of me. Once while in France my friend and I bought what we thought was wine for 1 Euro, which in hindsight I think was vinegar. We still finished the bottle.

And yet. Last night I was at a French restaurant with my family for my birthday, and they were divided about which bottle we should order for the table. They left it to me to decide, as the birthday girl. I would have dearly liked to have an opinion. Luckily, the waitress stepped in with a recommendation that wasn’t on the menu. I went with her choice. And, for just a moment when she brought the bottle and turned the black and gold label to me, I felt important. She poured a bit into my glass, I swirled, I sipped, I contemplated. I nodded my head. And I thought: I could get used to this.

Now, if I could only remember the name of that wine…

Beer mash

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I never knew I’d have so much to say about beer. Usually after I write Monday’s post I brainstorm a few other ideas that could work for that topic, and I’m lucky if I come up with four. But, just like a good fermented beer keeps feeding on itself, my list of potential topics kept growing and growing…

So here are many of the thoughts that I couldn’t develop more fully:

1. I’ll drink to that

My parents have a set of drinking glasses with words for “cheers” in different languages on the side of them. Here are the words I’ve used to toast, and why: Cheers (English–all the time); Salud (Spanish–while living in Mexico & Spain); A votre sante (French–while in Paris and to sound cultured); Nazdrave (Bulgarian–because I lived for a summer in Provincetown, MA with a bunch of Bulgarian seasonal workers); Slainte (Irish–in Dublin and while drinking with Irish writers); Prost (German–in German class); L’chaim (Hebrew–at Jewish gatherings and at the after-party for “Fiddler on the Roof”); Skål (Scandanavian–I’m a Viking, remember?)

2. Best-sellers

On the multicultural note, it’s interesting–and perhaps somewhat embarrassing–to see which beers are the best-sellers around the world. In the United States we buy Bud Lite more than any other beer. So much for microbrews.

3. How to repurpose an old brewery

Where do breweries go to die? Hopefully, they don’t. Here’s a story of a smart urban planner who found a new use for a wonderful abandoned brewery. (oh yeah, and one of my friends works for this guy).

4. Milwaukee brews

My boyfriend drinks PBR. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the drink of hipsters. Since my boyfriend also wears a lot of plaid shirts, listens to obscure music (he’s a music writer, for goodness sake!), and bikes any time he can, some go so far as to label him a hipster. He counters with the fact that he’s from a town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and locals always drink local beer. This was known and reported on by the New Yorker in 1960 (it’s free if you’re a subscriber, and I highly recommend it as it’s surprisingly hilarious). Some things never change.

5. Drinking time

My college’s unofficial mascot is Keggy the Keg. Our official mascot is “the big green.” That’s right, a color. Only “big.” No wonder Keggy makes such frequent appearances around campus, like at this tour for prospective students:

Oh yeah, Dartmouth was also the college that inspired this:

I’m planning to add more to this beer list in the coming days, so check back soon!

Drunk monks and microbrews

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Just as real champagne can come only from the Champagne region in France, a real Trappist beer comes only from one of the seven Trappist monasteries that doubles as a brewery, six of which are Belgian, the seventh lying just over the border into the Netherlands.

Trappist monks brew their beer

The monastic lifestyle requires self-sufficiency, and beer brewing in the monasteries began a half millennium ago as a way for the monks to provide sustenance to the community and vice versa. Trappist monks originally brewed three types of beer: enkel, dubbel, and tripel. You’d be correct in guessing that these are the Dutch cognates for single, double, and triple, referring the the strength of the beer (the naming conventions are significant to these Christian monks in that their strongest beer is triple, like the trinity). Many monasteries also have a patersbier, a weak beer that is only for the monks themselves. Though some say the monks began brewing dubbel beers to help them get through their fasting, the Trappists are generally supposed to live austere lives and are thus not supposed to be drunk monks.

All this is to say that the monks are way ahead of the trend. As I was “researching” local microbrews tonight for this post, I couldn’t help myself: I jumped into the car and headed for the liquor store. I browsed through the  bottles of microbrews, getting excited about the names of hops and yeasts that I’m beginning to recognize. I chatted with the cashiers, who were only too thrilled to talk about their own home-brewing experiences. And I thought of those monks who have been experimenting with those same ingredients for hundreds of years. So cool.

So hard to pick up.

I still have a lot to learn about the contemporary American beer scene. We’ve got a few breweries in Minnesota, but I only know two well: Summit and Surly. And even “well” is a relative term. I’ve only drunk Surly Furious (one of their two most popular beers) a few times in my life. I often get Summit’s seasonal sampling boxes of 3 bottles each of 4 flavors–I picked the Winter Sampler up at the liquor store tonight and am currently sipping their Winter Ale–but still wouldn’t be able to recognize any of them from a blindfolded taste test.

I know I like oatmeal and chocolate stouts. I know I like Belgian ales (thanks, monks!) I know I like Guinness. I know I like Kwak (although my friends make fun of me for ordering the hoity toity science experiment beer–see image at right). But there’s so much more to know! I guess the only way I’ll learn is by drinking a lot more beer. I think I’m up to the challenge.

What are your beer recommendations?

Beer through the ages


I remember when I became really and truly interested in beer. It wasn’t so long ago. I had just graduated college, which meant that I had been consuming Key Stone Lite for four years straight. Key Stone is to a nicely crafted microbrew what cement is to ballet. And it’s just the kind of swill that would put a person off beer forever.

Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer

But then along came The New Yorker. The article that changed my entire perspective on beer focuses on a microbrewery in Delaware called Dogfish Head and its head brewer, Sam. This article came out in autumn of 2008 when I lived in a small town in Spain. My roommate and I got deliveries of vegetables from a local farm, and one of our main activities in the evenings was figuring out what to do with produce we’d never encountered before. Sam’s brewing experiments seemed akin to our own (although much more complicated). Furthermore, I was intoxicated by the strong dose of beer history and trivia.

Like this: in 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria imposed purity laws, known as the Reinheitsgebot, that limited beer brewing to only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast was as yet an unknown substance). Though the Reinheitsgebot was created to control barley and hops trade among peasants, German brewers still follow these laws. For some, creativity flourishes with restrictions–modern German brewers have learned to mimic fruit and spice flavors through endless combinations of yeast, hops, and grains–while others find inspiration in stranger places. Sam uses an archaeological chemist to help him recreate the types of alcoholic beverages drunk by ninth-century Finns and by King Midas’s court in Turkey in 730 BC.

An early depiction of beer brewing

It is somewhat surprising to think of how many centuries humans have brewed beer, considering the effort my family and I put in last Friday to make sure that our wort boiled just so, that all the parts that would touch the beer were sanitized, and that our fermentation system was airtight. Indeed, beer requires much more technology than, say, wine. Crushed grapes will ferment on their own. Beer is intentional. Still, it dates back something like 11,000 years old.

As the Reinheitsgebot once tried to kill variation in Bavarian beer, so Prohibition tried to wipe out the thousands of breweries that once dotted the American landscape (a 1935 New Yorker article bemoaned the “Fourteen Years of Suffering,” but was optimistic about the return of imported beers). And Prohibition was successful in that aim–the majority of breweries closed, leaving only a few that were able to stay solvent by creating “near beers.” But the last few decades have seen an exponential increase in microbreweries and home brewing. As we become more involved in the selection of our food–local, organic, free of artifice–so too are we becoming more cognizant of our drink. While there are still fewer than half the number of breweries in the United States than there were pre-Prohibition, I imagine that number will continue to grow. After all, both the process and result of beer brewing are way too much fun to let die on the vine.


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