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What I drink when I’m not working


I suppose people think wine critics drink only 98 point wines when we actually have the time to enjoy wine, as opposed to tasting for work. Tasting for work accounts for 95% of the times I actually put wine into my mouth. It is not an “enjoyable” experience, strictly speaking, in the sense that I literally am working: trying to figure the wine out, then, if I’m successful in that regard, trying to package my thoughts into a concise 40 or 50 words. This work also involves the physical aspects of manipulating an onscreen database (which occasionally is down) and typing words and numbers on the keyboard, for which squinting at bottle labels is essential (to make sure, for example, that alcohol levels as reported on submission forms comply with the numbers that actually appear on the label, which isn’t always the case–and why are those numbers getting tinier and tinier? Pretty soon, I’ll need a microscope to see them).

So those are some of the minutiae of the work side of tasting (and, since I just had to check the proper spelling of “minutiae” in my dictionary, that act, too, comprises part of tasting for work). With all this endless to-and-fro of typing and squinting and dealing with databases and looking things up in dictionaries (and beside my dictionary is a Thesaurus, for those times I look for an alternative to “crisp” or “smooth” or “big”), tasting for work can hardly be described as “enjoyable.” And yet it is. It is enjoyable because, for all the hassle, I can remind myself that I make a decent living at it. Enjoyable, too, because the quality of California wine continues to get better every vintage (a tale in itself), and so the average quality of the wine I taste for work is quite high, and occasionally phenomenal. Enjoyable for the sheer challenge of getting through a rigorous tasting and remaining intellectually intelligible. And enjoyable, finally, because there is enjoyment in work–any kind of dignified work–in itself.

But back to that other 5% of the time I put wine into my mouth. That is strictly for me: down time for pleasure, to wash down food and, yes, get buzzed as night descends and I get ready for bed. So what do I drink when the work day is finished? The answer may surprise you: anything at all.

In fact, by the end of the day, all I really crave is something sound. It can be a little $12 Sauvignon Blanc, dry and savory. It can be an earthy, tannic Barbera, or a crisp rosé. It also can be, of course, the remains of a $150 Cabernet I’d earlier reviewed, the point being that I basically don’t care; “wine” becomes simply what it was meant to be throughout human history, a mildly stimulating beverage to drive one’s cares away and be a digestif for the stomach. That’s when the critic in me steps aside, and I allow the human in me to relax.

I was recently reading something about a chef–I think it was Thomas Keller–who, when asked what he likes to eat on his night off, or when he hangs out after work with his fellow cooks, replied: udon. Not foie gras or truffles or some elaborately arranged plate, but good old, humble noodles. I loved that, because it’s the way I like to drink when I’m not drinking for work. I want something simple and approachable and good, something easy to appreciate and that doesn’t demand much more than a capacity for pleasure. My own dinner of choice these days is ramen, a healthy restorative for the excessively rich food I tend to eat when I’m on the road, which I have been a lot lately. I buy my ramen at nearby Asian markets or, sometimes, at Whole Foods (where it costs twice as much because it’s organic, but doesn’t seem any better). I’ll throw in a little mashed steamed broccoli or zucchini, some roasted chicken, add a drop or two of hot oil, and enjoy it with almost any wine I have at hand: expensive, cheap, red, white, dry, sweet, sparkling. I’m not going to stress because I’m drinking Cabernet with shrimp-flavored noodles. Sometimes I don’t even feel like wine, but just want a nice pot of green tea. After the business of scoring is over, I’m happy to revert to the person I’ve always been: just a guy who wants something good to drink.

  1. Steve,

    I have a friend who is winemaker / owner of a well-known Russian River Pinot house. I posed the same question to him a few years back and he told me that he loves to turn all his meals into tacos and his favorite beverage is Gewürztraminer. He finds it offers the right balance to his cravings for spicy foods.

  2. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    “I want something simple and approachable and good, something easy to appreciate and that doesn’t demand much more than a capacity for pleasure.” Steve this statement is what most wine consumers want; I know that is what I want. Nice entry!

  3. Our palates may not be that far apart! For what I call our daily drinkers, my wife and I are also fond of CA Sauvignon Blanc (Dry Creek of late) and/or dry french Rose’ (Hortus of late). Also, some 2009 Beaujolais-Villages (Colette) or a basic, but good $10 Bordeaux. (Lestrille) Our nightly ritual is a glass during “cocktail hour,” and a glass with dinner. Not much, if any, sniffing and pontificating…just eating and drinking.

  4. lori narlock says:

    Udon noodles sound so delicious. I wish I lived near Japantown. I’d go there for lunch.

  5. Tom Barras, sounds good!

  6. Most “civilians” have no idea how much work goes into sales and production of wine. Whether it’s the researching of producers and vintages, making up tasting sheets, getting ready for a consumer tasting event or a winemaker dinner, there is actual labor involved in what is (for most civvies) a “fun” product.

    As you have pointed out, making it through the day can be a sometimes arduous, yet rewarding, task. At the end of the day, it is sometimes the remainder of the day’s sample bottles and sometimes nothing cleanses the palate better than a crisp and hearty IPA. After dealing with the intellectual side of wine all day, it’s sometimes a necessity to switch gears and appreciate the simple sensual pleasure of a cleansing drink.

  7. Norm Gary says:

    Nice balancer for all of us who are wine obsessed. I particularly liked your statement: “the quality of California wine continues to get better every vintage.” I couldn’t agree more. I remember when (not more than 20 years ago) you were taking a risk with any US wine including California, if it wasn’t an already known quantity. Now the overall quality of Cal wine is so good that you can be adventuresome without worrying about wasting your money.

    As to what to drink at the end of a hard work day, I remember working all day at a wine show and going out to an Ethiopian restaurant with colleagues. We all wanted a beer!

  8. Sometimes I like a little Sherry. She is only 5 tall… LOL
    Really, I like some sherry once in a while. No ice.

    There are some pleasurable wines from Romania and Hungary too that are inexpensive and a good alternative.

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