Almost 25 years ago, while I was still in my late teens, my grandfather, an executive at a brewing company in England, decided it would be a good idea if I went over to France for a summer to study the language and gain a bit of experience in the wine industry. His company had significant holdings in Bordeaux, and he was keen for me to spend some time there, "surveying the mood of the people," as he put it. In short, there had been some labor issues, and he needed a spy. It was a daunting, but exciting prospect, and a wonderful opportunity for advancement.
The day I arrived in Bordeaux it was pouring rain, and the talk was of yet another disastrous vintage, the fifth such vintage in a decade. One month into my stay, the weather, much to everyone's surprise, finally broke. The sun came out, temperatures soared and Bordeaux was blessed with what has now become known as "the miracle vintage." In many ways, 1978 was a watershed year, a vintage that takes on a particular significance for me because I was there to witness it unfold.
Work at the Bordeaux production facility was menial and at times utterly disheartening. If there was ever a time to shatter misconceptions about the romance of wine or the honor of the business, then this was it. By way of compensation, I was fortunate to be able to spend time, unlike my overworked colleagues, in the company of winemakers and vineyard managers, and to learn fragments of centuries-old conventional wisdom from artisans who seldom challenged tradition. Despite the occasional disillusionment, I was bitten hard by the wine bug and, in the almost quarter century since that first exposure to the magic of this vast and convoluted subject, I have never failed to be enthralled by all the possibilities that wine offers.
Six years ago, on the advice of a winemaker friend, but against my own better judgment, I embarked upon the master of wine program. This is at the minimum a two-year course, culminating in examinations that test one's knowledge of wine growing, production and marketing, as well as one's ability to taste and identify wines blind. It's a serious commitment, and the attrition rate is huge. Every candidate has his or her good reasons for engaging in such an arduous endeavor, some of them fanciful, some more pragmatic. Whatever the motivation, it's a quixotic enterprise, but everyone needs a hobby. This may all sound a bit highbrow, and in case you might think that I've adopted a hopelessly elitist and haughty attitude towards what is, after all, supposed to be the beverage of hedonists, nothing could be further from the truth. I enjoy drinking wine as much as the next person, and am quite capable of drinking it without analysis, or without too much thought, for that matter.
Wine is as much about fun and pleasure as it is about scholarship, but I feel sometimes that the economic, social and production aspects of the subject tend to get buried under the faÁade of lifestyle and fashion. There is room for both the serious study of wine and for its unfettered enjoyment, sometimes in the same sitting. Let's face it: Wine is an alcoholic drink, becoming more so by the day, in fact (more of which at a later date), so it should come as little surprise that most of the world's great wine experts also happen to be accomplished tipplers besides. All this by way of a preamble to the introduction of The Cork Dork, a new monthly column in which a panel of tasters, both industry professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike, will offer their opinions on a dozen or so wines in a specific category.
Although there are many who might not agree, I believe that there is a great deal of excellent wine to be had for under $15 per bottle, and it is in this price range that we will be devoting our search. Certainly, it's easy to find a great bottle of wine for over $100, but how many of us can afford the price, and how much fun is that, anyway? I derive far greater pleasure from finding a steal at under $20, as I'm sure do many fellow drinkers. Recently, a well-known consumer publication rated "great value" California Cabernet Sauvignon. When I opened the magazine, I was astonished to discover that they were referring to wines under $50. This is a sad reflection on the state of the California (especially Napa) wine industry. There are undoubtedly some great values to be had, but they are becoming increasingly few and far between.
This sad realization was reinforced when, a couple of months ago, I was invited to spend a week in Napa as the guest of the Napa Valley Vintners" Association. It was a wonderful time, but I was constantly astonished by the cavalier approach taken by so many producers to pricing. I left with the impression that the consumer is paying not for what"s in the bottle, but for the producers" "little piece of Eden," as they put it. Even decidedly average wines that might only a couple of years ago have cost $15 are now selling for $50 plus. The inmates are running the asylum, folks. So where are the great values coming from? If you enjoy simple, cleanly made, inexpensive varietals (Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), then Chile provides some pretty decent bargains, but little true excitement.
If you are more interested in wines of a place, what the French would call vins de terroir, then France, Spain, Italy and New Zealand can provide a lot of great drinking for not too much money. For out and out fruit, high-tech winemaking and sunshine in a glass, you"ll find everything you could ever hope for in the wines of Australia. In the past two years, Australia has bombarded the American wine market with dozens of extraordinary values, a trend that shows little sign of slowing for the foreseeable future.
Next month, we're going to examine everyone's favorite red, Merlot. In the meantime, here are three of my top picks for budget holiday drinking. They are available at the better wine stores, and cost well under $15. ï Sparkling: Zardetto Prosecco non-vintage. This is my favorite bargain fizz at the moment: frothy and light, with lowish alcohol, it's a great brunch wine. ï White: Villa del Borgo Pinot Grigio. From Collio, the epicenter of quality Pinot Grigio, this crisp, lightly fruity and refreshing white is both food friendly and perfect as an aperitif. ï Red: Falesco Vitiano: an absurdly cheap blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. What's not to love?
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