April 7, 2014

Fred Tasker: It’s not just wine, it’s an adventure

The New Year is aging rapidly, and we’ve broken all of our well-intentioned resolutions by now. So let me propose a new one, at least for wine fans. Repeat after me: “At least once a month I will taste a wine I’ve never had before.”

The New Year is aging rapidly, and we’ve broken all of our well-intentioned resolutions by now. So let me propose a new one, at least for wine fans. Repeat after me: “At least once a month I will taste a wine I’ve never had before.”

It’s been my resolution for years. I can usually keep it, because, to me, diversity is part of the joy of wine.

But it’s important, too, because forces loom in the wine world today that might steer you wrong, lead you in the direction of stale and repetitive wine choices.

The latest twist is Internet wine clubs that use questionnaires and records of your previous purchases to come up with their version of your “wine palate” so they can send you new wines you'll probably like because they’re so much like the ones you’re already drinking.

Where’s the adventure in that?

There also are new apps that get you to enter your likes and dislikes in wine via your iPhone so their computer brains can assess your palate and steer you to more wines that are very much like them.

Didn’t they do that in Orwell’s 1984?

It’s not just wine, of course. We all know the social media are watching us. I used Google to look up lampshades recently and, ever since, whenever I open Facebook I see another slew of lampshade ads.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of lively and helpful wine clubs and wine apps out there.

J Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., has a “Club J” that sends its members six to eight bottles four times a year, at a 15 percent discount. Many of these wines are in limited production and otherwise available only at the winery, so the program expands its members’ wine experiences rather than narrowing them.

Mendocino County, Calif.’s Navarro Vineyards’ top-rated wines — unusual ones like gewurztraminers, rieslings and dry muscats — are available to fans nationwide only through its wine club because the winery doesn’t sell in shops.

Good and valuable wine apps include one by wine writer Natalie MacLean. It lets you photograph a wine’s bar code with your iPhone and access her on-the-spot professional tasting notes, scores and food pairings. Pretty handy when you come across an unknown wine in a shop or restaurant. And it gives you the courage to try something new.

But other apps can steer you wrong. These are the ones that ask you to fill out questionnaires about your taste preferences, then steer you toward other wines it thinks you will like. It’s a quick and slippery slope into boring repetition.

Now, finding predictable wines can be a good thing if you don’t abuse the idea. You’re having dinner with your boss, and you want no surprises. Or you’re getting a gift for that eccentric old uncle who simply won’t drink anything but merlot. But don’t — oh, don’t — do it when you’re by yourself or with like-minded friends.

If you do, you’ll never taste a steely grillo white wine from Sicily or an aromatic red pinotage from South Africa. Or a honey-like seyval blanc dessert wine from Michigan.

Wine fans are too open-minded, too inquisitive to be boxed in that way, aren’t we? Already there’s an ABC, or “Anything but Chardonnay” movement among fans. It’s not that we don’t love a good chard; we just don’t want to drink it every day with every meal for the rest of our lives.

I’ve read there are at least 10,000 wines in the world, and I realize with remorse that I haven’t tasted most of them — abouriou, bacchus, castelao, encruzado, foglia tondra, mayolet, xynomavro, zefir, zeus .

I’m trying, but my bucket list is pretty long.

If you can keep finding new wines, there’s a quiet satisfaction in showing off your latest exotic discovery to your friends. I took a wonderful, lychee-like Alsacian gewurztraminer to a Cuban pig roast one hot Miami night, and it was the hit of the party. (True, I also opened a bottle of steely Spanish albariño for a chardonnay-loving middle-aged college sorority alumnae club and barely escaped with my life. One takes one’s chances.)

For myself, I’d rather try a new wine that turns out to be something I dislike than drink the same old, same old wine I’ve had a dozen times already — even if it’s one I like. This problem is not new. For years, passionate wine fans have lamented the “homogenization” of wine that’s happening on a scale approaching global warming.

There’s an “ugly American” aspect to it. With our overwhelming buying power, we Yanks are unconsciously imposing a single style on world wines, simply by buying what we like.

We have the nerve to call it the “international style.” Big and lush and extra-fruity, with big alcohol and full body from extra-ripe grapes, rich and buttery flavors and low acids from secondary fermentation, huge oak flavors from long barrel aging.

And it’s very likely to be chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or maybe merlot — not any of the less-famous grapes mentioned above.

We also call it the “New World style,” since Australia, Argentina, Chile and others have copied it. It’s as unsubtle, and as resented by many, as wearing a cowboy hat in the Vatican.

It means that, to make a living, growers in Greece are pushed toward pulling out their traditional mavrodaphne vines to plant cabernet sauvignon. Growers in Uruguay are pulling out their sturdy tannat grapes to plant merlot.

There’s little place these days for the subtle, the lean and light-bodied wines with crisp acids that, in my mind, go better with food than many of the more popular, overwrought international style wines.

So come and join the fight for diversity. Let’s keep our new resolution.

Start small. The next time you’re in a wine shop, choose three wines you’ve never had before. Tell the shop keeper what you’re having for dinner, and ask his/her help in choosing one of the wines.

The next time you’re going out to eat, check the restaurant’s website beforehand and look at its menu and wine list. Choose an entree, then peruse the wine list, Google some of the wines and pick one to go with your entree.

When you dine, take notes. Just simple ones — the wine’s name, how it tasted, how you liked it and how it went with your entree.

Over time, you can put together an ever-expanding list of your new favorite wines. And what a broad and expert palate you’ll have in a year.

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