I have observed many people in wine stores over the years with similar facial expressions indicating an inner dialogue: Is this one any good? What the hell kind of wine is this? Where do I start?
I sympathize, for these lost souls were once me. Today’s wine culture has exploded from what seemed to be a simple selection of regionally focused red or white wines to a dizzying array of choices and blends from around the world. As a self-taught oenophile, I’m of the opinion that nobody wants to help these poor unfortunates. I think wine culture seeks to obfuscate and blind these new arrivals to its shores. Therefore, debunking a few enduring myths regarding wine becomes a public service I feel inclined to provide.
As an aid to the perennially confused, I will open fire on a handful of the least helpful yet most persistent myths about wine.
1. Only Old World Wine is Worth a Damn
People occasionally say, “I only drink Old World wine.” For me, this is the equivalent of walking onto an airplane and being shocked to see a woman sitting in the Captain’s seat. Where have these people been for the last forty years? Since Robert Mondavi fired the opening shots in the New World wine revolution in 1966, the Eastern Hemisphere’s domination of wine has been under serious threat.
Winemakers have migrated to new lands where experimentation is encouraged, not shunned. New terroirs like Central California, New Zealand’s Marlborough Coast, and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley have produced wines equal to or better than the best of the Old World. Don’t get me wrong: France, Italy, Spain, and Germany still produce many of the world’s finest wines. But not all of them.
2. Screwtops Mean Cheap Swill
No, they don’t. An enduring snobbery about cork reveals a shallow knowledge of wine. If you plan on keeping wine for a long time, and drinking it only after it’s aged, then cork is the way to go. But most people drink wine as soon as they bring it home. And these people, like me, will never notice the difference. And you’ll never get a screwtop wine spoiled because of corkage, will you?
3. White With This, Red With That
Blah, blah, blah. White with fish and chicken, red with beef and pork. “This is ze vay it must be!” Who says? Most wine pairings are matters of personal taste, not science. Okay, if you’re having a salad with bitter greens and an acidic vinaigrette, Riesling is the way to go. But otherwise, drink the wine you like with the food you want. I bet you’ll like them together. Oh yeah…red wine goes better with chocolate.
4. Under Twelve Bucks? Forget It!
This one is hard to call a myth because I’ve seen many examples suggesting it might be true. The bottom end of the market is full of examples of wines that, in the words of Miles from the 2004 movie Sideways, “taste like the back of an LA school bus.” I’ve just as often been surprised by cheap and cheerfuls as I’ve been disappointed in them. One way to locate good, low-priced wines is to visit a wine store with free tastings. Occasionally, you’ll find a winner to add to your cart. Then, start the night with the showboat wines, then have some eight-buck Merlot on standby for when even Miles wouldn’t care anymore.
5. “I’m Not Drinking Any F***ing Merlot!”
Miles’s famous meltdown in Sideways greatly influenced me as a neophyte wino, creating a whole movement in the wine industry known as The Sideways Effect. I became and remain, a Pinot Noir authoritarian. But in the long run, I saw that this little scene did a great disservice to one of wine’s most accessible ambassadors. Good Merlot is light, airy and easy on the palate. But, again, taste it before writing it off. Just this once; don’t listen to Miles.
6. Expensive Wine is Just Another Way to Rip Off Rich People
Along with $20,000 purses and $600,000 watches? Yes, this is sometimes true, but just as often, there’s value hidden in the product that only becomes apparent once you taste it. Look for its provenance if you’re considering laying out bucks for a special occasion wine. Did it come from a region famous for growing great wines? Is it made from a single clone vine or a small collection of clones? Is it terroir specific? These are all indicators of a potential winner. When in doubt, ask. And whenever possible, taste. A hundred bucks is a lot to toss on a hunch.
7. Rosé is for College Girls
Again, like Merlot, Shiraz, or anything Australian, there’s a lot of clutter out there. There are some genuinely smashing rosé wines to be had. Doubt me? Who knows wine better than the French? And who drinks rosé by the bucketful? The French.
So, you’re welcome. Head back to that wine store with a look of confidence. Ask questions. Taste! Read about wine, and watch some great streaming documentaries on the subject, like Somm. In the end, wine is like art. It’s all about what you like. And don’t let anybody, even me, tell you what you should like.