Story and strategic choices in talking about Central Otago subregions

Central Otago went from zero to international recognition in less time than it takes to test the merit of a great Burgundy vintage. Good for them. It’s occupants had the advantage of a favorable climate, enthusiastic pioneers, and in many cases an enviable lot of capital investment, but they also experimented generously and — most importantly — became polished storytellers. The stories may in fact have outpaced the wines, which is less a criticism of the latter than an acknowledgement that they are very much still figuring out what they’re about. And so, while it’s obvious that subregional differences are dramatic enough to shout about, not much shouting actually happens on that account. One: they don’t yet have the maturity for more than broad subregional outlines. Two: it might not be part of the story they want to tell in any case.

Driving through Central makes it clear that subregional differences should be important. Driving in from coastal Otago (the Dunedin area, where I live), the first substantial growing area you encounter is Alexandra, a dry, flattish valley with a large (for this area) town. Cross the hill and drive past the dam and you’re in Cromwell, where many vineyards enjoy the mitigating effects of Lake Dunstan. North at the top of the lake, the Bendigo vineyards are widely known as seeing both the hottest and the most extreme weather. Go east toward Queenstown and the Bannockburn vineyards are perched above the Kawarau river. Through the pass further toward Queenstown, the Gibbston valley has the highest elevation and the coolest climate. And then there are the outliers: dear Nick Mills at Rippon in Wanaka; vineyards in Waitaki closer to the coast. These are obvious differences. Central Otago doesn’t tend toward subtle.

Plenty of conversation is happening about subregions, none of them questioning whether they’re significant. The questions instead are about what is significant. Are site differences principally related to soil differences as you move up the “terraces” from the valley floor? Or is the elevation more significant? Maybe it’s enough to talk about those big subregions. There’s that first problem: it’s hard to tell in part because vines are young, but maybe even more so for want of continuity. Vineyard managers, winemakers, owners, directions, and styles have flexed enough here that two challenges become significant: creating distinctly regional pictures independent of those other factors, and passing down sensibly kept records and knowledge gained from experience. The openness to experimentation and international flux that has helped these folk find a niche in the pinot world so quickly has, at least in some cases, come at the expense of some stability. Point the first.

Point the second: wine, and Central Otago, is all about story. Subregions may not be the story people want to tell here. Yet. Adept storytelling is a stand-out feature of many successful wineries here: to justify selling $70 pinot noir with nearly no history behind them, it has to be. Telling a story doesn’t mean talking about everything that goes into making a wine; it means carefully curating elements that create a specific image. Subregionality may not be part of that story. In some respects, that choice is about market readiness, which is obvious. They’ve succeeded when someone in Louisiana or Newcastle knows where Central Otago is; talking about Bannockburn is too much.

But it’s also a choice about style and direction. Some wineries here bottle from estate vineyards. Many blend fruit from different vineyards for balance and complexity and, no doubt, economy and ease. Matt Kramer told producers in 2013 that using many clones was (one; he had a few other interesting points) key to making exciting pinot noir, and it could be said that blending across multiple vineyard sites is similarly looking for complexity. As those vineyards age, and maybe as they’re planted with increasingly diverse clones, maybe

Back to choosing a story. Wineries here have mostly built their identities around concepts other than subregions. If that’s working for them, serious investment may not go into defining, refining, and emphasizing subregional stories.

Since differentiating yourself is ever necessarily the new world winery game, it makes sense that a (but not all) winery here is built expressly around exemplifying subregional differences. That’s Valli, where Grant Taylor bottles separate pinots from Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Waitaki. Tasting those three wines, made by the same winemaker in essentially the same ways, is an education that makes me wish Taylor’s portfolio included bottles from Bendigo and the other subregions as well. The Gibbston wine is the sharpest with the highest acidity, the Bannockburn the biggest and smokiest, the Waitaki the spiciest with the most prominent tannins. The Waitaki stands out to me as the most interesting wine, possibly because it’s the least standard and, dare I say, maybe the most complex: while the Gibbston and Bannockburn are well-made and enjoyable wines, the Waitaki has the thing that makes me want to keep coming back to the glass.

That’s the direction I hope Central Otago pinots take as they grow up: not just well-made wines with fancy labels and nice stories, but intriguing and maybe even intellectually satisfying wines. Whether they find that intrigue in multiple clones on single vineyard sites, blending across regions, or even just older vines under winemakers who decide to stay put, I’ll hope that Valli keeps doing what Valli does, and maybe more of it.

**By the by, “Central Otago” is a “district” within the “region” of Otago, where a “region” is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Central Otago is a recognized Geographical Indication — it can be used on labels going to the EU, with a defined meaning — and various subregional names are allowed as “Appellations of Origin” on labels going to the States.


Update on saving a historic California vineyard: the news is good

If you already know what I’m talking about, the good news is that the California DWR plans to preserve the Jose vineyard when it renovates the surrounding marshland. If that didn’t make sense to you, keep reading.

This past March, a small hullaballoo arose in response to a California Department of Water Resources plan to reconstruct a tidal marsh in Eastern Contra Costa County in the general, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area. The project, while an otherwise lovely effort to protect and maintain verdant wetland habitat, would have destroyed a historic and utterly irreplaceable 14-acre Carignane vineyard (“the Jose vineyard”) originally planted in the 1880’s. I wrote about the project and reasons for saving the vineyard here: Let’s stop a bad thing from happening for a good reason: saving a historic California vineyard.

This morning, the Dept. of Water Resources released their final plan and recommendations for the project, revised after a comment period during which 115 people (including me), and the city of Oakland, voiced concerns about losing the vineyard and supported changing the project to preserve it. The good news: the revised plan keeps the vineyard in place, along with a perimeter access road and an adjoining “buffer area.”

The original plan read: “The proposed project will result in the removal of the Jose Vineyard in order to achieve proper elevation and vegetation consistent with the tidal marsh restoration, which would be considered a substantial adverse change to the property under CEQA. Project redesign in order to avoid this impact while still meeting restoration goals has been determined infeasible.” Well, somehow they found the will to make it feasible, mostly by looking for soil fill elsewhere.

.6 acres of obviously newer, replanted vines at the vineyard’s edge will be ripped out and replanted with native dune vegetation, but the remaining 13.4 acres will stay put. This seems entirely sensible. While I think an argument could be made for keeping the whole vineyard intact as a historic site, the old vines are the most important concern here. It’s hard for me to argue for why we should value .6 acres of newish vines over .6 acres of good native habitat without intimately knowing the vineyard.

The project report recommends restrictions on what vineyard management techniques can be used in the interest of protecting the surrounding flora and fauna which, again, seems entirely sensible unless and until some deadly disease threatens the whole vineyard with salvation available only by drastic chemical means. I don’t know how significant the restriction is for this specific vineyard or if it changes anything about the way the vineyard is currently managed. But, again, it’s hard for me to argue in favor of using environmentally-damaging chemicals in agriculture ever, period.

In short, I feel comfortable calling this good news: for the herons and frogs, for the wine industry, and for however we represent the general interests of California history. And if you need to spend more time thinking about good news today, or if dense legislative language gives you thrills, you can find the full revised report here along with a summary of comments and the Department’s replies here.

Wine research news: the improbable edition

Some wine research is revelatory: it provides an “aha!” moment for some long-standing grape growing or winemaking question. Some wine research is disappointing: it doesn’t come up with the answer we wanted, or an answer at all. And some wine research is just plain weird. This week, a few entries in the weird category:

Using fruit flies as model sniffers – Drosophilia melanogaster, the common fruit fly, ranks right up there with the mouse and Escherichia coli as a hyper-common lab animal: their giant chromosomes make them easy targets for genetics research. What I didn’t know before? They’re also good for sniffing research. Some computational neuroscientists in the UK used flies to look for differences between brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar odor molecules? Familiar for a fly? Wine aroma molecules, of course. No word from the research group on whether the flies’ tasting notes will be released at a later date.

Impregnating yeast with wood aromas – We have oak adjuncts: cheap, convenient chips to mimic expensive, bulky barrels. We have lees aging: letting wine sit on the sludge of dead yeast cells left over after fermentation to yield flavor and texture. Ever thought of putting the two together? The idea somehow occurred to a group of Spanish enologists, who used the sometimes-spongelike qualities of yeast cell walls to absorb flavors from wood chips, then steeped the yeast gunk in red wine. The “wood-aromatised yeast lees” released woody flavors back into the wine, and both tasters and chemical analyses could show a difference (tasters particularly appreciated chestnut-infused wine, which was more plummy and spicy than oak, acacia, or cherry wood). The idea appears to be making wood-flavored wine faster, though it’s hard to see why using dead yeast as wood chip sponges is better than just using the wood chips.

Grape marc as an herbicide – Grape marc (or pomace, or solid leftover grape bits) isn’t usually considered toxic. Quite the contrary: it’s a common livestock feed for ranchers who live in wine regions. So it seems odd that mixing a chemical herbicide with marc made the herbicide a more potent plant killer, but that’s what a group of French plant scientists found: the mix specifically increased the herbicide’s cell killing capacity. The herbicide in question is less toxic than many other agricultural chemicals, but strategies to use less of the stuff by augmenting it with a natural (and otherwise pretty darn safe) waste product are mighty appealing nonetheless.

None of these studies will win an Ig Nobel — for research that makes you laugh, and then makes you think — though Ron Washam recently had a few suggestions for MW thesis topics that just might, should anyone have enough chutzpah to take them up. Embarrassingly and disappointingly enough, the only instance of wine-related research or a wine-related researcher being granted an Ig Nobel was in 2005, when Yoji Hayasaka of the Australian Wine Research Institute was part of the team that won that year’s biology prize for carefully creating a catalogue of the smells 131 different frog species produce when they’re stressed. Enology is such an excellent repository of enjoyable, engaging, thought-provoking, and sometimes silly research; surely, we can do better…or worse?

Napa’s earthquake: the people we aren’t seeing on the news

Napa was hit by a 6.0 (read, major) earthquake early this morning that seriously damaged wineries, historic public buildings, houses, and people. Unless you’ve been wearing a cardboard box on your head since you woke up this morning, I’m sure you knew that already. Social and traditional media are laden with images of barrels and bottles in disarray, and Facebook tells me that several people I know needed to evacuate their homes on account of gas leaks.

The news coverage has (at least thus far) given prime attention to the visually arresting wine-related damage. Understandably so: just seeing a photo of Matthaisson’s tumbled barrel room on Facebook this morning took me aback, and I can only imagine how their team must have felt when they walked in. It goes without saying: wine is irreplaceable.

But amidst all of the appropriate shock and horror at the wine-related damage, it becomes too easy to forget the people who we aren’t seeing on the news. News outlets are interviewing representatives at wineries and resorts. Most pictures I’ve seen are of well-known wineries, upper-middle class houses, well-to-do folk who should have good insurance policies, or historic public buildings. That’s not everyone. Napa’s fire chief has been reported saying that one of the six known structural fires took out four mobile homes and damaged two others. Folks dependent on assorted retail and seasonal work will be disproportionately hurt by closures during clean-up. So will seasonal agricultural workers without home and property insurance.

The governor has declared a state of emergency, which I can only hope will support putting things back together for ALL residents of Napa County. Still, a chance of help later does little for people without a cushion now.

The media is doing a terrible job of directing public thinking around this event. It’s nice to know that the Meadowood (a leading luxury resort in the area) was undamaged, but I honestly don’t care; they can afford to deal. I care a great deal for the wineries who have lost wine in bottle or barrel. But as we express our solidarity with winemakers who have lost their work, let’s not forget the impoverished who are, perhaps, going to have an even harder time putting their lives back together.

Toward better wine science communication (and my PhD)

If you’re a winemaker, a vineyard manager or viticulturist, or in a similar role, and if you have ten minutes to help a PhD student gather some data (and improve the state of research communication in the wine industry), I’d be most grateful for your response to this survey on your feelings about winemaking and growing information and where you go to find it. Find the completely anonymous survey here:

Why thinking of wine as food solves the natural wine debate

Wine is a food. A surprising number of people are surprised when I say this. It seems obvious: wine is nourishment. Nourishment with specific effects, yes, but all foods have some kind of effect on us, if some more profound than others.

Saying that wine is food isn’t the same as saying that wine is harmless. Nearly every food will cause you some sort of harm if eaten in inappropriate quantity, and any amount of some foods are bad for some people. Jack Sprat and his wife are really caricatures of all of us: some people are happiest and healthiest as vegetarians and some really live best with meat, some feel their best eating dairy-free and some can’t digest soy, some thrive on lots of carbs and some on more protein, some need to avoid salt and some don’t. Guidelines apply, sure, but setting down universal rules about what’s healthy for everyone just doesn’t work. Alcoholic beverages are food, dangerous for nearly everyone in large quantities (allowing that what qualifies as large varies from person to person), not tolerated by some, and healthy and useful for many.

Remembering that wine is food fundamentally solves the debate about whether or not wine must be “natural” in order to be valid. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is still no, but with some elaboration.

The reality about food in our post-Wonder Bread, post-Michael Pollan, post-Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall world is that we* near-universally know that locally-grown, minimally-produced, food with clearly identifiable ingredients that came out of the ground, off a tree, or from a recognizable piece of a pastured or wild animal represent “real food” and the ideal of what we should be eating. On the other hand, anonymous food processed out of recognition in large factories, wrapped in plastic and trucked about the country feeds most people most days. This is not ideal, but it’s the situation we have. Wine is the same. Boutique, caringly-crafted, often minimally messed-with wines are the ideals much lauded by our leaders. Still, Gallo and Yellow Tail and their ilk are still responsible for most bottles (and boxes, and jugs) on most tables most of the time. This is also not ideal.

The conundrum: while real food — including wine, and meaning ingredient-focused, sustainably grown, minimally processed, and preferably local — is ideal, it’s usually more expensive and sometimes unavailable. Especially in economically impoverished urban areas (and even very rural ones sometimes, perversely), wholesome fresh food sometimes is simply unavailable. Some people don’t have the know-how or time to prepare fresh food well. Even if just about everyone knows that eating mostly out of packages is bad, many still do so for a variety of reasons that may or may not be their “fault.” My husband once said that if the United States wanted to create an effective and complete anti-hunger program, the government should contract McDonalds to administer it. Neither of us voluntarily chooses to eat fast food. But you can’t deny McDonald’s expertise in delivering enormous quantities of consistently edible food to essentially every corner of the nation. When it comes to hunger, food is better than no food, even if the food is a mass-produced hamburger. Even though wine isn’t a basic necessity, mass production of what the natural folk would call fake wine makes wine accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to afford or access it at all. And much as I spurn the capitalist-driven food production system, I have to give credit where it’s due. We have industrialization to thank for safer food supplies and clean, well-made (as in not overtly faulty) wine. Understanding the benefits science and technology can bring, our task now is to undo the additive-filled and soulless damage we did to what nourishes us in figuring all of that out.

We can and should put community gardens into empty city lots, teach children how to grow their own radishes and encourage them to tear up the grass in the yard to do it, support fresh food markets in food deserts, make food production and cooking classes part of the school curriculum, and design economic policies to support local and organic food production. How to do this stuff is complicated. People specialize in economics and food policy. I’m not one of them. I’m not going to pretend that I know how to make these changes happen. I don’t believe that we need GMOs and factory food to provide enough food to feed the world, but I recognize that as a belief based on gut feeling and emotion and philosophy because I haven’t worked through all of the data. I’m consistent, though, in believing that the entire world could and should have access to real, honest, well-crafted wine if we changed the infrastructure surrounding how wine is produced and distributed. And we should.

So, the obvious conclusion. Appreciate mass-produced wine for providing volume and access while actively working toward making real wine — defined the same way we define real food — available to as many people as possible. Those of us with the money and education to buy real wine should, something we pretty much do already for cultural reasons, but perhaps without seeing the connection to the local and real food movements. Realizing this connection is important: it brings into focus the privilege inherent in preferring real wine and, in tandem, should help motivate us to work for change in both spheres. Think of real wine as part of real food, prefer both if you have the resources to do so, and think about what you can do to support its production and improve access. The Michael Pollans and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of wine have yet to step up in terms of consumer education at least in the United States, hardly surprising considering our short history and present state of wine education, but something toward which to look forward nevertheless.

Now, what we define as “natural wine,” as in where we set the line between wine that’s allowed to carry that distinction or to show up at The Real Wine Fair — that’s a different question, and a semantic and philosophic more than a practical one. So is what we call “authentic wine,” and the issue of drinking local versus global is an entirely different discussion. More on those another day.

Incidentally, if we’re post Michael Pollan, I’d say that fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz (upon whom I’m inclined to wax poetic) is the prophet of our future food revival. Does that mean that I love quirky “natural” wines? You bet.


*I may be defining “we” rather narrowly as reasonably well-educated Westerners, but I doubt it. I haven’t surveyed people shopping for packaged foodstuffs with food stamps, but I know that my friends who fall into that category know what healthy food looks like and aren’t choosing it for a variety of reasons. Less well-educated folk may not know who Michael Pollan is, but the collective media we has achieved pretty high penetration if not on his message, than on the message of fruit and veg and whole grains good, processed foods and added sugar and salt and fats bad.

“Feminine” wine: Why are we still having this conversation?

I’d thought that “masculine” and “feminine” wines were on their way out. Or, rather, I’d thought that the use of gendered stereotypes to connote particular wine styles was on its way out. One small sign that my hopes were premature: Wine Enthusiast’s online feature on “Top Wine Terms Defined” not only includes “feminine” but asks me not to “automatically bristle at this gendered wine term.” Okay. Tell me why. Unsurprisingly, their reasons are unconvincing and point back to why we shouldn’t be using this term in the first place.

The article praises the term for being easy to understand and quotes a beverage director to the effect that feminine wines share a woman’s “best qualities,” being “light, refined, and delicate.” So, I’m being asked not to bristle because, first, everyone knows the female stereotype of womanly refinement and, second, because it’s implied that we’re paying women a favor, referring to their best qualities. After all, “feminine” wines aren’t moody, flighty, or hysterical, equally stereotypical but negative characteristics associated with women. Nope. I’m bristling.

We’re being invited to agree that women are supposed to be — or at least that the best women are — gentle, fair, and fragile. I don’t need to belabour the point. Women can and should be praised for being a lot more than that: strong, intelligent, capable, funny, and any other praiseworthy characteristic we appreciate in people. Heck, we have plenty of television ads of women getting muddy playing sports or brokering business deals but — stereotypically — at least some part of the wine community is being backward. It would be funny if it wasn’t damaging first. Asking to be mollified by the idea of being paid a compliment just makes it worse.

Men aren’t treated well by the gendered wine phenomenon, either; stereotypes of big, burly, strong, rich masculinity put them in a box just as much as do the female stereotypes for women. Suggesting so is hardly new. Steve Heimoff’s blog hosted a promising debate over his reference to the feminine aesthetic in winemaking last year, for example. Nonetheless, Googling “feminine wine” suggests that the term remains reasonably common. Backwardly.

What’s the problem? The short answer: stereotyping is bad. One better: stereotyping is bad because it limits individual’s identities in terms of who they feel they can be and in terms of who other people allow them to be, because it let’s us treat others as something less than human — because when we label them with a stereotype we apply and expect the contents of that category to how we see them and stop seeing them in their fullness as people — because we make categories and then fill them. Ideas don’t exist out there on their own. We construct them. And so every time someone uses the term “feminine wine,” they help build the cultural phenomenon of the associated stereotype. In a small way, sure, but large ideas are built of small instances. Castles and bricks.

I’d like to hand the editor of Wine Enthusiast some Michael Foucault (or Judith Butler, or pretty much any other late-2oth c. critical theorist). Instead, I guess I’ll just rail a bit and embody the outraged middle-aged woman. You know the type.

On Winning Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2012

Something rather remarkable happened to me on Monday. At about 11:30 PST — 8:30-ish London time — I received an email from David Honig, publisher of Palate Press, consisting of three words. “You won” in the subject line, and “congratulations” in the body. I hadn’t been able to fly to London where the Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Awards were being presented; the trip would have cost me about fifteen percent of the annual pittance I make as a graduate student, and that clearly wasn’t happening. David, who went on behalf of Palate Press’s nomination for wine website of the year, offered to accept for me should the necessity arise. I had planned on not winning, partly because I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but also partly because I don’t see what I do as being that award-winning. So, when David’s email arrived, I was truly surprised. It even occurred to me for a moment that it might be a mistake or a joke, but that’s not David’s style. I’ve been doing even more than my usually generous amount of smiling ever since.

I’m honored, naturally, and humbled, and astonished, and delighted. But I also feel as though my winning this award says something about the position of wine science writing in the the wine writing world. From my very first article for Palate Press, I’ve written almost exclusively about wine science: microbiology, flavor chemistry, article critiques, and the like. Doing so, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the wine writing world. I can’t relate to most other wine writers’ experiences about press trips to Portugal or interviewing a great sommelier or trying to tell the story of this beautiful South African Pinotage. Researching an article, for me, doesn’t involve tasting and talking; it involves hours of reading scientific journal articles. It’s nearly impossible for me to compare my writing to people more in the mainstream; we’re talking apples and oranges, in some ways.

Most importantly, it’s hard to judge whether what I’m doing is valuable. I can say that I’m one of the few people trying to talk about wine science to the lay-wine enthusiast. I can say that I think doing so is important. But I can’t say whether anyone else agrees with me.

The other finalists for Emerging Wine Writer of the Year are all splendid writers — including my Palate Press colleague Evan Dawson — but they all write something closer to the mainstream of wine writing. That I was chosen among them says something about wine science writing as much, and perhaps more, than it does about my own skill. It’s a validation, at least by this group of people, that the science of wine is potentially as interesting and important to the wine enthusiast as is the personal narrative of wine, or the economics or architecture or politics of wine, or tasting notes. It’s a statement that wine science writing has a place in the greater mission of wine writing. Even if I sometimes feel peripheral, I’m still sitting at the table. It’s a good place to be.

Let me have won the Roederer, then, not just for myself, but for the greater cause of wine writing. And, maybe, even for every writer who takes the risk of doing something different because it’s what she loves.

Because the air is very smoky here today

The sky is innocent enough but the dust, the dust is coming from some place I’ve never been and calling me to a place that is only a memory, and a collective one at that. I’m solidly focused on trying to place one foot in front of the other, calmly, resolutely, to make it look like this is easy, to make it look as though I’m not trying to ignore the horses cantering and the cattle grazing and the women in long skirts going about their business through my mind. But then a guitar comes from an open door, a guitar and a voice, and the only reason that I know the door is open is the music because I’m still staring resolutely at my feet, but “steeeel guitars from Memphis on the way to rock ‘n rollllllllll…” makes me look up, and back, briefly, and I see the figure in the worn jeans and sturdy belt and pale cowboy hat the color of a steer you might rope at the county rodeo and smoking what I’m certain must be Marlboroughs And I stop in my tracks for a moment, an instant, short enough that the kid behind me thinks that I’m still walking, because I hear the man in the jeans and the belt and the hat asking me the whereabouts of the young buck cowboy I lost years ago and who owns the horses he saw cantering and the cattle he saw grazing and whether I’m friends with the women in long skirts going about their business. But it’s a quarter to nine o’clock and I keep walking as though I don’t know the answers to his questions, no, sir, you’ve got the wrong girl.

In Response to Mr. Gray on Wine Lists and Mr. Dawson on corkage

I somewhat belatedly read my fellow Palate Press columnist Evan Dawson’s article on corkage and then, also somewhat belatedly, The Gray Report post in which W. Blake Gray (also a fellow Palate Press columnist) responded to Dawson. When I realized that I had more to say about the topic than was going to fit tidily into a comment on either piece, I thought that I’d continue the chain by responding here. Please don’t think that I’m trying to steal either Evan or Blake’s thunder. Everything I’ve seen tells me that both Evan and Blake are great guys and even better writers, and I couldn’t steal their thunder even if I wanted to.


Blake asks the pertinent and (characteristically) punchy question: should a wine list educate or is the wine list just a price list? His question is prompted by realizing that he (an experienced wine writer, no less) doesn’t recognize most of the offerings on the wine list Jeremy Parzen has compiled at Sotto, which Dawson used as an example of a particularly thoughtful and interesting list. Since Blake can’t order based on familiarity and is given only the most general information about the wine – name, vintage, red or white, “bold” or light, and a very general idea of place (it’s an Italian restaurant; most of the wines are also Italian) – he has three options.

  1. Ask the sommelier for advice. Blake dismisses this option as impractical because the somm isn’t always there and takes a long time to arrive table-side when he or she is. And while some servers are reliable sources of knowledge about the wine list, most are not.
  2. Choose a wine based on price.
  3. Bring his own bottle from home (which is the original connection with Evan’s article on corkage.)

The fourth option, which Blake didn’t mention, is to pull his smart phone out of his pocket and use his favorite wine app to look up tasting notes on the list’s mystery wines, but I’m going to give Blake the benefit of the doubt and guess that he’s too much the polite diner to unholster a cell phone at table.


Both Evan’s and Blake’s articles caused me to reflect on how narrow an audience they’re really addressing. We’re all addressing a narrow audience when we write about wine; most people don’t care enough about wine to read about it for fun, and that’s especially true of the geeky stuff I prefer. But Evan and Blake are writing to people who, additionally, live in sizable cities with significant fine dining restaurants AND who eat out at such establishments often enough to think about bringing their own bottles from home. I suspect that this does, in fact, describe most of the readership of Palate Press and The Gray Report, but it definitely doesn’t describe me. Blake lives in the San Francisco area. ‘Nuff said. Evan lives in Rochester, NY where I also once lived and so which I can attest is definitely not San Francisco, but it still has some reasonable restaurants. It unquestionably has restaurants whose wine lists surpass the boundaries of my wine knowledge.


I live in Pullman, Washington, a town the size of which is overstated by its 30,000-somethingish population estimate. Pullman is a small town on the Washington-Idaho border, smack-dab in the middle of wheat- and lentil-farming country, that just happens to have a sizeable university (Washington State) stuck in the middle of it.  It is, therefore, a peculiar blend of redneck farm community and partying college town. I love it. I love living in a town where I have a field ten minutes from my door and where I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone I know, but which has the critical mass necessary for cultural events. And a decent library. But what we don’t have are restaurants of the caliber that Evan and Blake assume are the norm. Pullman restaurants are largely designed to feed college students, which means neither fine dining nor notable wine lists. I’d qualify one restaurant in town (the lovely Black Cypress) as “fine dining” – two if I include the nearby Idaho town of Moscow – and its short but satisfactory wine list favors Washington and Oregon enough that I can reliably identify every glass and bottle. I’ll guess that at least some other readers can relate. We don’t all live in San Francisco or New York or even Rochester.


Back to Blake’s question about whether the wine list should educate or can be just a price list. As much as I enjoy the former, I’m honestly okay with the latter, which brings me to my second point about narrow audiences. On the rare occasions when I find myself within range of a good restaurant, I don’t have a lot of money to spend there. I know that more expensive bottles generally carry a proportionally lower markup and are therefore a better deal. I often know that some of the more expensive bottles are hard-to-find treasures, and sometimes I know that they’re really yummy. But none of that matters when you’re a grad student who’s functionally living below the poverty level.  I DO use the wine list as a price list. I don’t make a selection based on price alone – there are usually a few options around the lowest price point and I can rule out bottles that I know I don’t like or that are inappropriate for what I’m eating or that are horribly overpriced – but price still ranks as the most important factor in my decision. Hand me Jeremy Parzen’s beautiful wine list at Sotto and I’ll have no trouble making a decision even though I’m woefully incompetent at Italian wines. I want something red, and I want something bold – because I’m eating a braised oxtail dish, let’s say – so I go to that section of the list. The least expensive bottle is something called a syrache, which sounds a lot like syrah and I know that I’m hit-or-miss on liking syrahs, so I move to the second least expensive bottle. This one says “di Sardegna” which I’m pretty sure means “from Sardinia” and I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about Sardinian wine. Sold.


The worst thing that can now happen is that I don’t like the wine which, at a restaurant of Sotto’s caliber, is more likely to mean that I simply don’t care for it than that it’s poorly made. (If the bottle is clearly flawed I would send it back, but I’d also say that I’m more confident than the average consumer about my ability to identify wine faults.) Whether I like it or not I’ve probably learned something. It’s possible that the wine isn’t a good representative of it’s type and that I’ve therefore not learned anything that I can generalize beyond this specific wine, but that also seems unlikely in a restaurant like this with Jeremy Parzen running the wine show.


Actually, I’m much more likely to order a beer or stick with water regardless. Obscene markups on restaurant wine lists bother me so much that I rarely drink wine in restaurants even when I’m not the one paying. At less schmancy places with little or no wine on offer I feel fine bringing a modest but interesting bottle of my own. I won’t bring a bottle to someplace like Sotto unless the bottle ranks comfortably in price with their own list AND rocks, and since I have no such bottles in my cellar I won’t bring one. So I’ll drink water or, if the beverage manager has been thoughtful enough to put together an interesting beer list with a few curiosities, I’ll order one of those. Beer is usually an obviously better deal and, if I’m lucky, I’ll find keg- or cask-only offerings that I couldn’t try at home, all for less than the least expensive glass of wine on the menu, and almost universally more interesting.


I would be overjoyed to find a wine list full of things I’ve never seen before with clear, accurate, and interesting descriptions of its contents.  But, if I did find such a list, I would:

  1. Be tempted to rudely bury my nose in the wine list rather than attending to my dining companion, should I have one;
  2. Take 75 minutes to place my order because it took me that long to read the list and I forgot to look at the menu; and
  3. Still order wine based primarily on price.


So, in the end, perhaps it’s better that the wine list act as a price list rather than an educational tool. When I go out to eat, I want to enjoy the meal and, hopefully, the pleasure of good company. I might not do either of those things very well should my attention be caught by an educational wine list. I can learn about wine at home, and that’s probably the best place for it.


I know that most people reading Evan’s and Blake’s articles aren’t like me but, if there are any who are, know that you’re not alone. To Evan and Blake, thanks for the thought-provoking reads. And I envy you getting to eat in those restaurants.