CVIndependent

Tue09222020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Wine is scary and intimidating. I get it; it has its own language full of science-y words. It comes from places we’ve never heard of, from grapes we can’t pronounce.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there is a whole fleet of wannabe wine experts just waiting to correct that word you mispronounced, or inform you that even though the wine you like is ”OK,” they like one that is, by far, better. And just how do they know that this wine of theirs is superior?

It got a huge score, naturally.

Before I proceed to rip apart the wine-scoring system that Americans cling to like cellophane-wrapped cheese, I want to point out that we have come a long way in our wine journey. Before wine became hip in this country, we were a Jack-and-Coke, Seven-and-Seven, cosmo-drinking culture. Wine was for snobs or elitists or Europeans. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to go to any city and not find at least one wine bar. We no longer associate all pink wine with sweet swill, or turn our nose up at something foreign. Walk into any supermarket today, and you will find a highly developed wine section with multiple offerings spanning the globe—a far cry from the olden days of one wall of wine that featured domestic, cheap chardonnay and merlot. Well done, America!

So … why—with all this wine sophistication and savvy that consumers now have—do we still hold tight to stupid scores?

Every time someone tells me that wine XYZ got 98 points, or that Chateau Crème de la Crème got a disappointing 87, I start twitching, and my insides get hot. There are so many things about the point scale that bother me, but the No. 1 thorn in my side is the notion that I am supposed to care about that number. There is a pervasive idea that we should respect a system that reduces wine to nothing more than a high school science project graded by a potentially burnt-out expert who may or may not be distracted with thoughts of their long-overdue Hawaiian vacation.

Giving a wine a score—a hard and fast number to hang around its neck like a noose—does nothing positive for the wine industry. In fact, I will say it has been the greatest hindrance to our blossoming wine culture. It infantilizes our decision-making and hogties us from being able to discover what we like about certain wines. Take me, for example: I happen to love wines that are bracingly acidic. I want there to be so much raging acid in my wine that it stings my tongue and makes me wince a little. What if gave 100 points to every wine that resulted in a slight chemical burn? It seems silly for a professional to tout such a concept, but I assure you it is no different than Robert Parker awarding 100 points to wines that are too-concentrated, overly alcoholic, hyper-extracted fruit-bombs. The only benefit I’ve ever found in such ridiculousness is that if Parker gave it a big score, I knew I’d hate it. My wallet and I are very grateful for that, because the other pitfall is, of course, that as soon as a wine reaches Wine Spectator/Wine Advocate stardom, not only does that wine immediately sell out; you are guaranteed to see that wine double in price, if you ever see it again.

Points give consumers the false idea that there is such a thing as a “perfect” wine: 100 points awarded for being flawless! According to that guy. On that one day. And that guy’s palate on that day. By giving power to the points, we fail to acknowledge that wine is a moving target. It is a living thing affected by all kinds of variables, the most important of which is you. I actually feel sorry for wines that get 100 points; chances are, they will never achieve that status again, and thus, they’ll never be quite as good as they used to be. In that same vein, I feel pretty sorry for us consumers, too: We will constantly be subjected to a wine industry chasing those big scores and crafting wines to appeal to what that guy likes—row after row of wines like little Stepford wives that are perfectly bland and soulless.

I often wonder if the scores these wines get would change if the circumstances were different when the wines were tasted. Maybe that Central Coast syrah wouldn’t taste like 95 points with a plate of yellowtail sashimi. Just maybe, in that same scenario, the 87-point chenin blanc just got a little bit better? Points eliminate context. Are we always just drinking wine alone, without food, in a vacuum—or do you actually eat during the day? Just last night, I opened a bottle of Spanish cava with some friends as we downed a bucket of cheap fried chicken. It was glorious (seriously, one of the best pairings you’ll ever have), and the bubbles were exquisite. Would I have enjoyed it any less if the cava received an 82? Nope. And I find the very notion of my pleasure being dictated by a number irresponsible and more than just a little bit laughable.

“I give that donut a solid 91!”

“That massage was an 88 at best.”

“Your house is lovely, but there’s no pool, so you get an 83.”

Sounds ludicrous, right?

Scores will obviously continue to be used, and despite my ranting, I do understand why; I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Scores act like little life vests to shoppers drowning in a sea of options. The idea is that scores help people paralyzed with the fear of buying the “wrong” wine. I’m here to tell you there is no such thing: No matter what the score is, you’ll always be faced with the unknown flavor in the bottle. Scores are not a guarantee that you’ll like the wine. They simply imply that someone likes the wine, and maybe you will, too.

I feel certain that you know your palate better than anyone else, and you probably know more about wine than you realize.

Trust yourself.

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is currently studying with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. When she's not hitting the books, you can find her hosting private wine tastings and exploring the desert with her husband and two children. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Wine

The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, we’d spent the day at our grandson Lathan’s birthday-party carnival. A couple dozen kids, balloon animals, face painting, carnival games.

“Everyone’s a winner!”

Kids raced about collecting candy and filling up bags of popcorn from a rented machine, washing it down with juice drinks in foil pouches.

We’d stayed to watch Lathan—his face painted superhero green—open a giant pile of presents. The booty included many things Hulk, from undies to action figures to two sets of Marvel The Avengers Gamma Green Smash Fists.

We ate cake.

The party was a huge success. And exhausting. We’d planned on going out. I’d looked up some venues with live music. I’d checked the theater schedules.

Then we got in the car. Tired. Hungry. “Wanna stay home and cook?”

I ticked through the stuff in the refrigerator. “Do we have chicken? I can make masala and naan.”

We picked up cilantro on the way home and sent my adult son Jesse, home for a rare night with the ’rents, back for yogurt.

Now: Choose a wine that goes with chicken tikka masala.

I started drinking red wines with Nepalese and Indian food at the Himalayan Kitchen in Kaimuki, Honolulu, during the year I worked in Hawaii. It was a BYOB place. The food was terrific, so I experimented with lighter, gentler red wines: a grenache and a barbera. These were great. But it seems that, with spicy and tangy sauces, a bigger fruit-forward red balances the spice, smoothes the heat. It’s not unheard of for chefs to pair a dark, fruit-forward syrah with a tikka masala dish.

We scanned our wine list, stared at our wall of reds and popped our head into our 40-bottle wine cooler, where we keep the good (for us) stuff.

The time seemed right.

“The Grandpere? It’s a 2004. Probably not getting any better with age at this point.”

We’d purchased the award-winning 2004 Renwood Grandpere at the Amador winery around the time Renwood filed Chapter 11 and was sued for millions regarding contract disputes.

The Grandpere wasn’t crazy expensive, and it had won several awards, including the 2007 Schott Zwiesel Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Robert Parker gave the 2004 vintage 90 points.

The vintage came from a small crop out of a 20-acre vineyard in Plymouth, Calif., which boasts of being “home to the oldest clone of zinfandel in America.”

Our bottle was No. 10. We should have opened it between 2008 and 2011, according to online “when to drink” advice.

I started the naan dough, and Dave opened the bottle to let in some atmosphere. I wrote dates on the cork. These grapes were grown and the wine was made before our granddaughter was born, Dave said.

I thought about 2004, the year that Dave climbed Kilimanjaro. “That was the year you went to Africa,” I said. My husband returned that fall before U.S. voters re-elected George W. Bush. My vote canceled his vote. Now I read in Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column that people are forgiving Bush, forgetting what they didn’t like about him. With time comes balance, transfers of power.

Argentine billionaire oilman Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni bought Renwood in 2011. Improvements ensued. The brand is getting increased visibility, participating in Hollywood’s Independent Spirit Awards and sponsoring film premieres. I haven’t been back to see the winery’s spiffy new digs, including fireplaces, patios and a “handsome new tasting bar.”

Kneading dough gives me time for reflection.

Jesse peeled pearl onions. I grated fresh ginger and mixed it into the yogurt with cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, then tossed in chicken and veggies to marinate. I picked fresh mint and lemon balm to throw in the blender with the cilantro, lemon juice and spice. My version of hari (green) chutney.

The night we drank the 2004 Grandpere, Dave set Pandora to play “songwriter/folk.” Jack Johnson covered Lennon, telling us to “imagine there’s no heaven.”

Dave decanted the wine. We inhaled some promising esters. But appreciating the smell doesn’t always equate to liking the taste or the tactile sensation of the wine on the tongue. We were reserving judgment ’til all the sensations were in.

“We’ll either be disappointed or not disappointed.”

Dave took out our Schott Zwiesel German crystal glasses.

“I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one,” sang Johnson.

We poured wine, rust-colored with perfect clarity, into the crystal.

Ting.

Long smooth fruit and vanilla flavors didn’t distinguish themselves at first. The 9-year-old wine once was characterized as having “rich generous aromas of raspberry, vanilla and white pepper, with blasts of sweet cocoa and nutmeg.”

Those notes are still there, but not in “blasts.” This is the way the bottle ends, not with a bang, but with a floral bouquet and the calm suggestion that pepper and brown spices exist as Very Good Things. This wine goes quietly into that good night with a long finish of rich plum.

Grandfather Dave downloaded a new constellation app to his iPad. Tonight, we can look at the stars, he said.

“Should I start the grill?”

“Not yet. Just getting on the sauce.”

I showed Jesse how to scald tomatoes to get the skin off. I opened a rose of zinfandel from Mendocino and added a cup to the simmering sauce. Often, I will add the wine we’re drinking to the food we’re cooking. But not the night we drank the Grandpere. Every drop belonged in our mouths.

A pause over the counter. A swirl in the glass. A taste.

“I like it.”

“I like it, too.”

“It’s probably past its time. It hasn’t gone bad, just not what it was.”

We’re past our prime. We don’t taste bad. Just different.”

I like complicated things. Naan rises twice. After it doubles the first time, you pull it apart, make ping-pong balls out of it, and let it rise again. After this, stretch it and put it on the grill. Brush with butter and garlic.

Dave grilled the naan, coming into the house to sip his wine. After a half-hour or so, his happy wine smile was getting happier.

“It’s opening.”

Then onto the grill went the skewered meat and vegetables.

Into the sauce went more spices, more wine, the grilled meat and veggies, a dollop of heavy cream. Decadent.

The smooth fruit of the aged zinfandel was drinking well when we put the first bites of spice in our mouths.

For dessert, we finished off the bottle. We didn’t make it out to look at stars.

Grandparents, we are. Wine makes us sleepy.

Published in Wine