New York Times Wine School: The Homework Everyone is Talking About

For the past almost five years, Eric Asimov has taught New York Times readers about wine in his monthly “Wine School” column.  His virtual classroom works as follows: first, a monthly “theme” is announced  – which has ranged from Chablis to Cava to Rosso di Montalcino.  Asimov suggests a few bottles related to the theme for readers to try out on their own over the next few weeks and class participants are encouraged to leave a comment online about their thoughts on the selected wines. Then, in the following month’s column, Asimov provides a more detailed explanation of the varieties or regions selected, as well as summarizes readers’ impressions of the wines.

When we subscribed to the New York Times, I followed this column religiously.  However, I was always a lurker . . . until now.

nyt articlesLast month, when Asimov announced the lineup for January’s Wine School, a Twitter storm ensued. There was an initial shock surrounding Asimov’s wine selections – which I find understandable. Past Wine Schools have focused on more narrow, identifiable wine regions and wines made by smaller, quality conscious producers. These three wines are mass-produced, readily available almost anywhere and are the antithesis of artisan winemaking. Unfortunately, since I started writing this post, several of these tweets have been deleted – perhaps their authors had second thoughts.  While I won’t quote these deleted comments, I’ll give you the gist of the debate:

Immediately following was some debate as to whether Asimov, by suggesting these wines for an upcoming Wine School, was in essence promoting these wines. This led to a lot of discussion as to what constitutes “promotion”.  The headline reads: “Our Critic Wants You to Try These Supermarket Wines” which, ok, if we’re splitting hairs, does sound like a promotion to me, but not necessarily a recommendation. There’s a difference.

The larger Twitter threads debated why Asimov was even suggesting these wines in the first place.

Some people applauded his effort arguing that it’s useful to have an understanding of what makes these wines appealing to consumers. I fall into this camp. These are three of the most popular wines in the U.S. market! I’d like to have a better idea of where the average consumer is coming from.

However, others didn’t see the point of the exercise.  Just because these wines are being compared to the McDonald’s and Starbucks of the wine world, why is it important to taste them? (For the record, I occasionally eat McDonald’s and drink Starbucks religiously, yet don’t touch these wines with a ten foot pole).

Asimov defended his selections saying that:

If you only eat hamburgers made by dedicated artisans, you begin to believe they are the norm. But if you try what sells by the millions, perhaps you will better understand the hard work and dedication of the craftspeople.

I see his point. But to really appreciate the good stuff, do we have to try the bad stuff?  For example, I don’t need to be crammed into a middle seat in coach between two manspreaders with little junior kicking the back of my seat to know that first class is better – I can pretty much figure that one out on my own.

The comment that really hit home with me though, was former LA Times food editor Russ Parsons’:

I think some people are more comfortable critiquing them without having to actually taste them.

Ouch.  If we’re being honest here, I fall into this “some people” category that Parsons’ is referring to.  So in order to extricate myself from this minor quagmire, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and taste these three wines.

Grocery wines.JPG
Asimov’s supermarket triumvirate!  And yes, the irony of turning my nose up at mass produced wine but not thinking twice about bagged Caesar is not lost on me.

I headed out to purchase my school supplies – making sure they were buried deep in the bottom of my grocery cart.  Does the fact that I was a bit embarrassed to be buying these wines make me a wine snob?  (Hubs’ Note:  Yes.)

Once I was back at home, I had Hubs pour me four wines blind. Now, you may be asking: why four and not just the three required for school? No, it’s not because I’m an overachiever or trying to get some extra credit.  My reasoning was that I wanted to have a wine in the mix that was from a smaller, artisan producer. Not only was I curious if I’d be able to identify this wine out of the four (let’s fucking hope so!), but I also wanted to discern what made it distinctive from the rest. What makes mass produced wines taste, well . . . mass produced?

The fourth wine I selected was Kevin White Winery’s 2013 ‘Heritage’ Red Blend from the Yakima Valley in Washington state – a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot.  Only 169 cases were produced and as you can see from the detailed tech sheet, lots of hands-on craftsmanship went into the production of this wine – from harvest timing decisions to manual punch downs to aging in 40% new French oak barrels.

The following is a summary of my tasting notes and the corresponding wines are revealed at the end of this post.  Without jumping ahead, I’m curious which of you readers can identify which wine goes with which note:

Wine #1:  Prevalent aromatics of dark floral, smoke, charred black cherries and raspberries. The fruit definitely has a burnt characteristic to it. On the palate – a touch of sweetness – like fruit leather and raspberry jam. The fruit is very ripe and plush, medium acidity and ripe, smooth tannins. The finish is fairly lengthy and sweet – reminds me of cherry cola.

Wine #2: Aromas here are very dried floral and very perfume-y. On the first sip, this is fucking nasty oh holy hell (yes – I did write exactly this). tasting noteI feel like I just swallowed Grandma’s perfume. There’s absolutely no structure to this liquid – there’s barely any body, acidity or tannin.  What there IS unfortunately, is a lingering disgusting finish.

Wine #3: This wine has the most pleasant aromatics of the group so far: dark red berries, bramble/earthiness, sandalwood and a hint of smoke. Nice structure on the palate – medium+ bodied, medium+ acidity, tannins are well-integrated and fine grained.  The fruit is ripe black plum and cherry with some baking spices/clove.

Wine #4: The aromas here are also very pleasant: black cherries, dark plum, oak spice/clove and smoke. On the palate, fuller bodied and definitely some heat. Acidity plays a supporting role (at best) as the higher tannins are distractedly coarse and drying. Intensely flavorful reminiscent of roasted coffee beans, black cherries and bittersweet chocolate. Finishes hot.

The Wines Revealed!

Wine #1: Meiomi 2016 Pinot Noir, Monterey County (60%), Santa Barbara County (23%) and Sonoma County (17%), 13.7% abv ($20).

My Thoughts: Although I thought this was the Meiomi, this wasn’t because it tasted anything like most Pinot Noir.  It’s too sweet and completely lacking any semblance of earth, spice or savoriness – characteristics that you’d normally expect from this variety.  If a Meiomi lover were to try a Pinot from somewhere like Burgundy or Oregon, I can understand why they may not like it because these taste nothing like Meoimi.  These wines actually embody the variety.

Wine #2: Apothic Red 2016 Winemaker’s Blend, California 13.5% abv ($11).

My Thoughts: I know I’m supposed to be diplomatic on these type of things, but diplomacy only goes so far.  The fact is this doesn’t even taste like wine.  What on earth are they putting in this wine to make it taste this way??  Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Undrinkable.

kevin whiteWine #3: Kevin White Winery 2013 ‘Heritage’ DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley 14.4% ($35).

My Thoughts: With its complex, wide range of aromas and flavors and balanced structure – this wine completely stood out from the rest of the lineup.  And unlike the other wines, everything was in harmony.  There wasn’t any one element (sweet ripe fruit, grandma’s perfume or big bold tannins) that dominated and overwhelmed.  This wine is by far the most balanced of the group, has the longest finish and, for me, is the most enjoyable to drink.

Wine #4: The Prisoner 2017 Napa Valley 15.2% abv ($45).

My Thoughts: The tannins aren’t well integrated and the alcohol is out of balance as well.  This is a big wine and is certainly the most in-your-face of the group.  Not my personal favorite, but on this one – I can totally understand its mass appeal.  Especially by those whose preferences lean towards big, bold Napa Cabs.  However, at close to $50/bottle, I do think this wine is overpriced for what you get and you’re primarily paying for its brand-name popularity.

So to go back to what some of the Twitterati mentioned, what was the point of the exercise?  After all that, was I better able to understand why these wines are so popular?

As someone who started her wine journey with many (many) bottles of overly oaky/vanilla bean Sutter Home Chardonnay, the answer is yes.  (Hubs’ Note:  She forgot to mention that she actually started with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill before “graduating” to Sutter Home).  All three of these “supermarket wines” had a large degree of sweetness, ripe fruit and flavors of mocha/coffee/chocolate (either from oak aging – or most likely, oak powder).  These flavors are, to a lot of consumers, yummy and comforting.  And years ago, these were the characteristics I was looking for in a wine.

But today, I’m interested in wines with more earthiness, acidity and often an overall delicacy.  Wines like Beaujolais, Northern Rhône Syrah, or an Oregon Pinot Noir.  Wines that, to the “average consumer”, might be considered too “weak” or “earthy” for their palates.

I attribute this change in my palate to  two things: curiosity and education.  First, I was willing to try wines outside of my sweet/ripe/juicy comfort zone.  Then, after trying these wines, I wanted to learn more about them.  And the more I learned about wine, the more curious I’ve become about new regions, new varieties, new production methods, etc.  It’s a vicious, never-ending cycle – and I am loving every minute of it.

Truth be told, I enjoyed this homework assignment – even if I didn’t enjoy the wines themselves.  Like Asimov said in his first Wine School column: One of the great pleasures of wine is that your education never ends.