Why You Can’t Taste Terroir

Hermitage Grapes and SoilA recurring theme in wine writing over the past few decades has been the issue of whether terroir really matters. In the oversimplified way this is sometimes described (or more frequently understood even if it isn’t really described this simplistically) this is a battle between good and evil, a moral controversy over right and right or wrong. It’s often described as a battle between new-world and old-world wine producers, with the new-world producers cast as hubristically believing that science can trump tradition vs. smugly overconfident old-world producers who think there’s nothing they need to do to improve their wines.

Alternatively, the controversy is seen as one between Robert Parker and consultants who supposedly have learned how to get their customers to produce fruity, over-oaked, high-alcohol wines that are presumed to score well with the reviewers at The Wine Advocate and it’s slick imitator, Wine Spectator. Like many battlefield reports, these characterizations are gross oversimplifications of the situation on the ground. Continue reading

The First Sip of Wine: Treasure or Trouble?

First Sip

Do you remember your first sip of wine? Many people do. You many even remember your first taste of a particular wine —one that’s become a particular favorite or occupies a special place in your memory.  For anyone lost in the endless search for its precious but all too fleeting rewards, first sips serve as signposts on the pathway to a life of wine.

The impressions made by a first sip, including those formed just before and after it, occupy an outsized place in our wine experiences and become part of our fundamental feelings about wine in general. As we pull the glass expectantly toward our lips, drawing in the heady aroma, we approach the final reckoning. Will this wine deliver the returns we are expecting or will it disappoint? Somehow all our impressions of a particular wine become inseparably distilled into the memory of a first sip.

On a personal level, this kind of memory is understandable and quite useful. When we remember a wine, we conjure up how we expect it to taste the next time we drink it. Since that will begin with a first sip, our memories of the wine tend to fuse with the memories of our first sip. We can all use these memories to motivate us and help us make better choices in the future. But as these memories coalesce, they can blend with a popular image that features a wine connoisseur who takes a sip of wine and then instantly launches into a lengthy and erudite presentation on the characteristics of the wine. This image gives the first sip outsize importance and feeds the widely held, but dangerous, notion that everything you need to know about a wine can be learned from the first sip.

That notion is terribly wrong and doesn’t survive thoughtful analysis, but it’s Continue reading

Syrah, not terroir


Today I read an article that’s a good example of why, in the world of wine, the rich get richer. I’m not talking here about producers whose prices skyrocket as their brands become household names, but about consumers. Here the riches flow in the form of “winespeak”, the shorthand wine professionals use to communicate with each other, but that ordinary consumers rarely understand. Wine writers tend to use winespeak because they worry that they won’t sound like wine pros if they don’t. Since so much of the public dialog about wine is in this specialized language, those who understand it (and presumably already know a lot about wine) learn more about it, while those who don’t just get more and more confused.

In an article entitled Reclaiming the Earthy Grapes of St Joseph from his regular column, “The Pour,” Eric Asimov comments that consumers increasingly focus on “the best” rather than the very good. I prefer to see this phenomena resulting not so much from the fault of the consumer as from the complicated dynamic between wine journalists and their audience. This dynamic makes it hard for even a talented writer like Asimov, working from as lofty a platform as the NY Times, to completely escape from the economic realities of the tabloid.

The Famous and the Freaks of the Wine World

In The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine, I caution my readers that the media is Continue reading

Wine, Whiskey, Women and Beer

Brugge Beer

During the last few weeks, I’ve been reading two recently published books that provide interesting insights into wine tasting, even though they aren’t about wine tasting.  The first is Canadian Whisky, by Davin de Kergommeaux (Mc Clelland & Stewart; 2012). The second is Janet Fletcher’s Cheese and Beer (Andrews, McMeel Publishing LLC; 2013).

I’ve read many books on wine tasting, of course, and a few on whisky tasting as well, of which de Kergommeaux’s book is the most sensible and approachable of all. He begins his discussion of whisky tasting by tackling the conventional imagery head on, telling the wince and gasp crowd that: “A little bit of flavor will linger on your tongue, but your Continue reading

Irish Wine?


A friend of mine recently asked me to recommend an “Irish Wine” for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Knowing she was planning a traditional Irish meal, I’d sent her a link to a column in the Argus Leader (Two Women on Wine) in which Heather Taylor Boysen suggests several red and wine wines that are up to the tricky task of simultaneously standing up to the saltiness of corned beef and the herbaceousness of cabbage.

One of the things I’d liked about Heather’s column was that it didn’t just suggest a single specific wine as the perfect match for the meal, but gave a range of wines that could be used, so readers would be able find something readily available to them and have more room to adjust for personal preferences. This narrowed the choices and would help prevent a distressing mismatch, but it didn’t create any particular connection between the wine and that special feeling of Irishness that so many people enjoy on St. Patrick’s Day.

But my friend wasn’t satisfied and made it clear that she expected more from the Persistent Observer. Wasn’t I the one who preached about how a wine needed to match the occasion and the people as much as the food that would be served? Didn’t I know that she’d rather center her meal around the wine than pick wines to go with the food? And if I didn’t, why didn’t I talk to her about it?

All valid points and all the more embarrassing because they reminded me how easy it is Continue reading

A Valentine’s Day Challenge: Pairing Wine & Chocolate

Valentine Wine

Easy to love, hard to understand, wine can make a perfect match for your Valentine. In my earlier piece on Gifts of Wine, I mentioned some of the perennial issues people face when they give and receive wine. When the exchange is between lovers the problems are alleviated in some ways, but they are compounded in others by the expectations and traditions that we associate with this most universal of occasions.

One of the things I love about Valentine’s Day is the contradictions implicit  in it. We celebrate those contradictions by honoring both the persistent bonds of affection that bind true lovers together and the impulsive instincts that add spontaneity and romance to our relationships. Those brought together by impulse often find Valentine’s Day an occasion for deepening their bonds, while the long committed look forward to it as an occasion to reawaken the deliciously impulsive sentiments of romance. Paradoxically, it’s often a within the context of a disciplined structure that our creative juices become most fruitful. Valentine’s Day reminds us that ritual and romance are compatible.

It’s useful then, as we search for ways to add a resonant flare to our Valentine celebrations, to examine the classic images we associate with the occasion. To successfully vary the theme, we’ll need to understand its essential elements.

Valentine Gift Essentials

In a classic portrayal of a Valentine’s Day celebration, one partner arrives at the door with flowers and a box of chocolates, while the other provides a romantic Continue reading

Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of Wine in America

Jefferson Vision

In a letter sent to a French friend in December of 1858, Thomas Jefferson expressed his support for a reduction in the import duties on French wine as a moral issue.  This might seem a bit surprising to readers today, but Jefferson was, of course, both moral and logical.  His argument in favor of reducing duties on wine was based on his belief that those duties had the effect making wine prohibitively expensive for “the middling class of our citizens”, making them dependent on whisky “which is desolating their houses.” Jefferson lamented that  “our merchants know nothing of the infinite variety of cheap and good wines to be had in Europe” and made clear his view that, in an era when water wasn’t usually safe to drink, wine was a necessary part of a civilized society:

“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whisky.”

Jefferson Investigates European Wine

As the United States ambassador to France in the late 1780’s, Jefferson travelled widely in the wine regions of France, Italy and Germany and took detailed notes, which can be found in John Hailman’s excellent book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (University Press of Mississippi). These notes indicate a serious interest in how the grapes are grown and the wines made, noting such Continue reading

The Only Wine Guide You’ll Ever Need?


During the last few weeks,  The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine became available from most on-line retailers as well as some bookshops worldwide.  I’ll keep this site updated with links to the various sources as they come on stream and I hope … Continue reading

Gifts of Wine

Window Shopping

Wine is one of nature’s great gifts to mankind and it’s natural to think of giving it to people we love. I wrote The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine to help people connect with the excitement of receiving the gift of wine on a daily basis, but I didn’t deal directly with the subject of giving wine as a gift to someone else.  As often happens with wine, this turns out to be somewhat more complicated than it seems at first glance.

The subject has of course been on my mind recently. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and wine is certainly a part of that. But I’ve been reluctant to address the subject of wine gifts during the mad rush before Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year, because I hate to add to the clamor. It’s a time when many people search for recommendations from others because they aren’t sure they know enough about wine to make a good choice for someone else who loves it.  But since the love of wine is a very personal relationship, it’s hard to believe that they will be lucky enough to get it right by listening to someone other than the recipient.

Of course, there are always plenty of recommendations out there for us to sort through during the pre-holiday madness.  We see them in the shop windows, in newspapers and magazines and advertisements that pop up on our computer screens.  The sheer quantity of recommendations and the insistent promise that this new wine or a gadget is just the thing every wine lover will enjoy reinforces the notion that wine gifts are likely to be appreciated. If there are so many ways to please a wine lover, why not just take the first or the last recommendation you see? There’s at least a chance that it will be a bit better than something you choose randomly.

But I think wine lovers are disappointed with most of the wine gifts they receive. A good Continue reading

Why So Many Thanksgiving Wines are Turkeys

Thanksgiving Turkey

Want my recommendation for Thanksgiving wine?  Just “harvest” some of your favorite everyday wines and drink them the right way.

What? Nothing more specific? No suggestion for a wine that goes perfectly with stuffing (believe me it’s out there) or list of top American wines, ”traditional holiday favorites”  or ten best bets to pair with pumpkin pie? No recommendation that Chateau Nirvana is the perfect wine for Thanksgiving because of its “structure”, “minerality” or “acidity” or some other more elusive quality?

Nope. You couldn’t pay me enough to recommend specific wines for Thanksgiving. It just doesn’t make sense or take best advantage of the opportunity that Thanksgiving presents.

I think suggesting a single wine for Thanksgiving dinner is out to lunch. Over the course of a year you should have harvested several wines you feel special about. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the feast to share them.

The Most Frequently Asked Wine Pairing Question

Every year at Thanksgiving I get more requests for advice about which wines to serve than I get on the other holidays combined and I’ve often wondered why. The standard fare for Thanksgiving features turkey, which goes with a broader variety of wines than almost anything except bread. So why do people suddenly become so sensitive to food and wine pairings at Thanksgiving?  Continue reading