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Speaking truth to power: Why I don’t go ape over Riesling

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I’ve gotten so tired of geeks talking up the virtues of Riesling that it actually came as a relief when I read Jancis Robinson’s column on her blog yesterday in which she concedes she might “go to my grave” without the masses never properly appreciating the wine she has loved “for roughly 35 years.”

Riesling freaks have been telling us Americans for years that there’s something wrong with us for not loving Riesling. They say that we’re too bloated and superficial to appreciate a wine so subtle and pure as Riesling. They suggest that, if we prefer Chardonnay, we’re a bunch of heathens with no capacity for enjoying nuance.

Every time I read or hear someone like that, something inside me revolts. Of course, being the polite person I am, I don’t really reply. But Jancis’s column—and bless her for writing it—has enabled me to finally speak my mind on this overweaning tendency of the Riesling Drinkers towards arrogance and condescension.

I have had a lot of Riesling in my time, mainly German, often Alsatian and occasionally Australian, and certainly from California. Some of these have been everyday wines; some of them have been expensive. In fact, back in the 1980s, before I was a paid wine writer, I used to shop at the old Connoisseur’s Wines, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, which specialized in German wines. I knew the floor staff, and I still have labels in my tasting diary of some of the Rieslings I drank.

I never fell in love with it, is what I’m saying. Sure, I “got” it. It was usually off-dry, crisp in acidity and incredibly delicate. It often reminded me of water—not because it was bland, but because it was so light and pure and natural. Back then, I didn’t taste blind, so I was always looking for that “garden” quality Hugh Johnson spoke of, not to mention the petrol—and I usually found it. And I appreciated the acidity. I once went to a big tasting at Fort Mason of (I think it was) the 1991 vintage and tasted more than 100 young Rieslings. My gums haven’t been the same since.

So sure, I recognize Riesling’s greatness. It truly is one of the noble white wines of the world. But the reason I never fell head over heels in love with Riesling is precisely because of what Jancis says: It “just has too strong a personality to appeal to consumers to gain global attraction…unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavour…even when it is young…which some people are bound to dislike.”

Good for Jancis for her candid appraisal of reality. She’s the only widely-published wine writer I’ve ever heard admit that there could possibly be something troubling about Riesling. The rest of them sound like it’s the Second Coming, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be admitted to Heaven.

Riesling does have a very powerful taste. People complain about Chardonnay being too much of this and that, but I’ve never had a great Chardonnay that wasn’t at the same time subtle. It’s hard to explain how a rich wine like Chardonnay can be subtle except to use my usual metaphor of certain people whose wardrobe and hair and underlying good bones make them look like a million dollars and yet they still are elegant. George Clooney, perhaps, or Denzel Washington (in the past I would have said Cary Grant). Riesling by contrast is one of those wines whose personality is so overwhelming that you either like it or you don’t.

I don’t want to pick on Riesling, though, so much as reflect on the attitude, among certain wine writers, that you have to be like them in order to appreciate it—and if you don’t, then you’re not like them, which means your taste is questionable. Isn’t this the very elitism we’re trying to get rid of? Besides, it’s important to ask the question, Why haven’t Americans embraced Riesling when all the “important” tastemakers have been ordering them to for years? Jancis once again tumbles into the truth when she quotes a senior U.S. representative of an important German estate to the effect that “sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition.’” Are the American people stupid for not buying Riesling? Are they just a bunch of yokels who don’t have the sophistication to understand what their betters recommend?


Understanding temperature data? Not so easy!

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One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.

Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.

Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…

A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.

Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?

It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.

Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.


They said it on Facebook: bad restaurant behavior

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What’s the fastest way to make an asshole out of yourself in a restaurant? I was wondering because of some recent experiences, so I asked my Facebook friends, and as usual, they stepped up to the plate and offered up a potpourri of opinions which I am happy to share with you!

Send back the wine merely because you don’t like it.

Arrogance toward the staff.

Walk in like you own the place.

Snap your fingers at the server.

Light up a cigar and refuse to put it out saying……”this is a $100 cigar!!!”

Ask to speak to the Chef before your food has been served!!

Yell for service.

Take a line of my fav movie, The Jerk, “Hey waiter, you think in a fancy restaurant like this, you could keep the snails OFF the plate. And what’s with all this OLD wine, please go bring back something new, something from this year!”

Talk loudly on your phone.

Question a waiter about a dish and then show that you doubt he knows what he’s talking about (as in a long-ago date that I walked out on).

Pull down your pants and ask the server “what wine goes best with Wienerschnitzel?”

Quickest would be to ask to be moved from where they seat you three times. That’s instantaneous. Or maybe to just start insulting the hostess before you even get to that.

Anything that disrespects the restaurant staff.

Speak loudly on your cellphone while sitting alone at a table, without regard for your volume level.

Ask for a reasonably priced wine from their wine list.

“Garçon!”

Have no reservation, show up at 8 on the weekend and mispronounce the owner’s last name because he is a “dear friend”.

Ask in a loud voice, “what the fuck is the soup du jour?”

Because of course he’d give you a table…

Snapping your fingers to get service or refusing to take your ill-behaved children outside that are clearly too young to be there, so they can cool off and quit screaming.

Order Orange wine!

Send your food back because it’s too hot.

Ask for their finest white zin.

Tell the chef how to cook. That will get you in hot water quick!

take photos of everything including selfies of you with the waiter, chef, somm…

Talk about how good food, wine and service is at other restaurants.

Order something not on the menu.

Scrape your plate, and then complain that you did not like the food!

Arrive naked.

Rudeness towards an employee.

BUT…the biggest asshole(s) in a restaurant is the person, or persons who know full well the restaurant is closed, and yet they stay to absurdly late hours, keeping everyone else waiting there for them.

Asking for a red Château d’Yquem.

Leave a .02 cent tip.

Letting your kids run around like wild creatures in the restaurant instead of making them say in their seats (not bringing them something to do to keep them occupied also makes you bad) and then looking at your kids and smiling like everyone should also love them too when in actuality everyone is plotting the demise of them & your family (and I am a mom!). Also allowing them to scream like it’s some cute thing they do. It’s not.

Walk out of the restroom with your skirt tucked in your panties.

Ask for ice in your wine.

Be a loudmouth name dropper, take every call on your non-muted ringer, and also incessantly talk about the legs of the wine.

or wear a Dodger hat, anywhere outside of L.A.

Act like your customers are a dime a dozen.

Declare yourself and your friends “foodies who have eaten at the best restaurants on the planet”. Then say that you’re allergic to everything.

Loud bitching and moaning.

[This is Steve] I’m sure that none of my readers has ever committed any of these faux pas! I certainly haven’t!


To eat is (literally and figuratively) to live

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My seminar (with Pedro Rusk) at Saturday’s K-J Heirloom Tomato Festival reminded me once again of what a powerful interest people have in learning about wine-and-food pairing and how to make fabulous foods. It’s interesting when you consider that people in this country are absolutely inundated with information about food. It’s a never-ending avalanche: columns in the papers, POS materials in supermarkets, online sites, T.V. cooking shows and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks up the yin yang. Most of us have access to more recipes and how-to’s than we’d be able to use in several lifetimes, and yet we still show up at seminars like Pedro’s and mine for more.

It’s an almost religious quest. People go to Mecca or Lourdes, or just to their favorite house of worship on Sunday, in order to connect with something bigger than themselves, and hopefully become more than they feel they are. They buy self-improvement books, they meditate and pray, they’re constantly on the alert for something that will make their lives more complete and happy. And they go to large public events, like the Tomato Festival.

Of course, there’s an element of just wanting to be in a large, happy crowd on a glorious September day, listen to live music, drink some good wine and eat fabulous food—and man oh man, was that food great! I still feel like I inhaled a bowling ball on this, the morning after. To think that chefs can do so many things with a single ingredient—the tomato—is mind-boggling.

I’m talking about the seminars, though. It’s odd that some of us are so driven to always “up” our food game. In order to investigate the phenomenon, I turn to myself, and my own head, which is at least as curious about new approaches to food as is yours, in all likelihood. My first impression, in examining myself, is puzzlement. Why do I still subscribe to Bon Appetit? Why am I drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the Food Section of the S.F. Chronicle? I don’t subscribe to the other local papers, but when I’m at the gym and someone has tossed aside the Contra Costa Times or Oakland Tribune, I’ll pick it up and see if there’s a recipe somewhere inside. I have at least 40 cookbooks, have given away at least that many to friends, and I go to online sites like The Food Network several times a month; and yet, with all that data at my fingertips, I’m still hungry (forgive the metaphor) for more. I sometimes wonder if this almost obsessive search for perfect recipes and wine pairings isn’t a form of psychological compensation for a spiritual emptiness I feel inside; but such self-introspection can be morbid, and leads nowhere, so I try to avoid it. Still, do I really expect to find another pasta pesto recipe that will bring me to glory? Is there a way to roast a chicken that’s more orgasmic than the ones I’ve practiced for decades? Can there be a risotto more perfect than the ones I’ve cooked most of my adult life?

I suppose, if I were really, really into it, I’d master some new form of cooking, like baking. But who’s got the time, and besides, within a half-mile of my home are stores where I can buy every kind of bread there is, almost fresh from the oven (the San Francisco Bay Area has got to be one of the world’s greatest sources of bread). If anything, I’m shortening the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, especially if someone special was coming for dinner, I’d start prepping the day before, and the afternoon before the meal would be consumed with chopping, dicing, slicing and reducing sauces. Nowadays I look for the most delicious food I can make in the least amount of time. That’s not likely to change, even when I retire and don’t feel the pressures and time constraints of work. So why this relentless drive for more recipes?

Maybe it’s as simple as this: To eat is to be alive, and moreover, to indulge in one of the most pleasant aspects of being alive. (I’m reminded of those old commercials for Carl’s Junior: “Don’t bother me, I’m eating.”) It is imaginatively possible that we could have a powerful drive to eat and not necessarily possess an accompanying capacity for the intense satisfaction of eating. Therefore, to be interested in food—to anticipate eating, to think of the next opportunity for great, delicious food—is to authenticate our lives, to celebrate the fact that we are still alive and not dead, to exult in our physical health. When my mother was dying, in the hospital, yet still conscious until nearly the very end, she did not relish the meager foods that were brought to her, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) that in her private thoughts she thought about food at all. But then, she already had one foot in another world, a world in which eating (so far as we know) is non-existent or at least non-essential. So she had let go of food-thinking, which was replaced by a form of thinking most of us have yet to experience.

But for those of us who remain alive and kicking, eating is (along with one or two or three other activities) the most glorious thing we can do. As full as my belly feels at this moment, I know that, in a few hours, I will once again have that craving that starts as a vague desire at the fringes of consciousness, then gradually invades the thinking process until, finally, I arise from my seat and head toward the shrine of the refrigerator. The religious symbolism is apt: my search for another great recipe is no less than a quest for purification and redemption. The Most Perfect thing in the world, which is the subject of every religious and moral philosophy, may not be obtainable in this life, and certainly isn’t through eating. But the Almost Most Perfect food is always out there, beckoning, promising, tantalizing with salient possibility. When we stop heeding its call we, too, will have one foot in the other world. Until then, we live, thrive, love, drink, and eat.


When wine writers host public events

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I’ll be co-conducting a wine-and-food pairing event at Saturday’s big Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival. It’s the eighteenth time the event, which is one of the biggest in Sonoma County, has been held—and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never gone. Everyone has told me how amazing it is, so I am totally looking forward to it.

My particular role, which I’ll share with Pedro Rusk, one of the winery’s educators, is to talk about some white wines that make good summer drinking. Of course, I’ll also point out that no wine needs to be limited to just one season, despite the media’s penchant for suggesting that Big Reds (Zins, Petite Sirahs, Cabs) are good for warming the blood in winter, while delicate light whites are “the perfect poolside sippers,” to use one of the many hackneyed clichés that wine writers so often trot out.

Wine writers and wine critics, such as I used to be, possess many skills, but presiding over public tastings and food-and-wine pairings isn’t necessarily one of them. On the other hand there is a population of people out there in the wine industry who are quite proficient at the entertainment aspects of public educational tasting events, but who would make lousy critics and writers. The two skills are separate, yet they also are related. Both call for a knowledge of wine. Both call also for some understanding of the food pairing properties of wine. My own approach to this latter has never been overly precious, as readers of this blog might know. There is the danger of pretentiousness in suggesting that such-and-such a wine must be paired with such-and-such a food; or that certain pairings are lethal to both the wine and the food. There are very few “perfect” pairings, just as there are very few “lethal” ones. I was trying to think of an awful pairing, and came up with oysters and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, that would be over-the-top, nausea-inducing horror. But fortunately most wines will go with most foods, and you won’t have to worry about the Pairing Police knocking down your door and busting you. My attitude towards pairing is exactly the same as that expressed by the French sommelier, Gerard Basset, who was quoted in today’s South China Morning Post: “If there’s one area that can be over-thought… it’s pairing wine with food. [Basset’s] advice is to keep it simple.”

The other aspect of doing these educational tastings is, of course, to have the type of personality that is comfortable being in the spotlight, can yak it up with a smile and induce people to want to hear more, and one moreover that doesn’t have stage fright. I’m pretty good at being in the spotlight, so that doesn’t throw me. But I think even the best of public speakers has a little trepidation prior to going out there, live, before an audience. You just have to know your stuff, take a deep breath, pull out your natural charm and have confidence.

If you read this, either directly through my blog, or through Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll be at the Tomato Festival, please drop by Pedro’s and my seminar and say hi.


Some execs are “worried,” but really, there’s nothing to worry about wine’s future

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Nobody asked, but here’s my two cents on “top Golden State vintners [express] concern about the future of the $23.1 billion industry, especially among the discerning millennial market.”

That’s from Tuesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which reported on “a UC Davis survey of 26 senior executives” in the state, and found that “Everyone was a little bit worried.” Those execs included Joseph Gallo, from you know who, Jay Wright (Constellation) and my own boss, several levels up, Rick Tigner.

Seems the chief worry is “the intrusion into the wine category of spirits and craft beers,” according to the guy who conducted the survey, the well-known emeritus of Davis’s Graduate School of Management, Robert Smiley (who I had the pleasure of interviewing numerous times during my magazine days).

What do the execs base their impressions on? One of them said more “people are starting out with craft beers and then as dinner goes they switch over to wine.” I suppose this does “rob” the industry of that extra glass of sold wine. I like to start the evening out with a cold IPA, especially when the weather is warm, but that doesn’t stop me from consuming my share of wine. Still, I can see that if the theoretical consumer used to drink three glasses of wine at night, and is now drinking just two, with a bottle of beer making up the difference, that represents a 33% decrease in consumption.

Another exec wrote that he and his wife “have been having more cocktails than we’ve ever had in the past…”. That too, the exec speculated, “is maybe taking a little bit of the wine-by-the-glass business away.”

Then there’s the liquor store owner who said,“Ten years ago we were about 70 percent wine. Now we are down in the 60s.” Even with increased wine sales in the U.S., the execs are troubled by this nibbling away at the margins.

I have several reactions. One is that, after following this industry for more than 30 years, I’ve seen multiple times when winery execs were afraid that the sky was falling. It never did. Here in California, we’re coming off several boom production years (despite the drought) and quality has never been higher. Profits seem to be up everywhere at well-run companies, the mood is optimistic among employees, and with all the bashing California wine gets from certain quarters, it remains the best seller in America. Prices continue to rise, and where wineries are holding the line, they’re feeling pressure to increase—if only slightly—the cost of cases. That wouldn’t be happening if wineries felt truly threatened.

It is true that beer and spirits consumption is on the rise, but my feeling is that we’re becoming more of an alcohol-drinking country, so a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s also true, as I’ve insisted for years, that wine is fundamentally different from beer and spirits. Wine signifies aspiration. Beer never did; it signified only getting drunk. Neither did spirits signify anything, except a quick buzz at the end of the work day. Now, that is changing, because the craft beer and spirits producers have stolen from wine the concepts of lifestyle and aspiration that have always fueled wine. It is now possible to drink (as I do) great craft beer and spirits and appreciate them, not only for alcoholic punch, but for complexity, deliciousness and even (dare I say it?) intellectual interest. But I still believe aspiration goes along more with wine than any other drink. And America is an aspirational country.

What then for the wine industry? It can’t become complacent. It has to continue to appeal to its existing consumers, and not alienate them, as it learns how to reach out to younger Millennials. The messages and the products therefore must be extremely well-thought out and crafted with precision. But successful wine companies know how to do that. Believe me, they’re working overtime figuring this stuff out. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I’d put my chips on the wine industry. Spirits seem to come and go in America; their fundamental problem is that they’re simply too strong for millions of people to drink on a regular basis, throughout the meal, for the rest of their lives. Beer always stays popular, but it’s craft beer that’s got all the excitement now, and craft breweries are small; they do not, I think, represent a threat to the wine industry in the long run, although some stores are giving them increased shelf space.

Wine, by contrast, has staying power. There’s a reason it’s been top beverage in the western world all these centuries, and is now becoming top beverage in the developing world, too. Human nature doesn’t change; wine is more consonant with human nature’s aspirational elements than either beer or spirits. It’s the Goldilocks of alcoholic beverages: not too strong, not too weak, just right. Am I an admitted booster? You bet. But that doesn’t make me wrong.


Why young wine drinkers should know about the classics

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Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.

But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?

By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)

Okay. So two questions:

  1. Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
  2. What are the classics, anyhow?

Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.

But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.

I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.

So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.

This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.


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