Have you ever disagreed sharply with someone over the quality of a wine you were sharing? What would you do if someone were praising a wine you thought was technically flawed to the point of being undrinkable?
That's the situation I found myself in during an otherwise exceedingly pleasant tasting dinner at the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, a new retail store in downtown Brooklyn.
The store's co-owner, Patrick Watson, had invited 16 Brooklynites, including Sara and me. There was quite a bit of wine knowledge in the room: a former wine writer, now editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine; an upscale caterer who had formerly worked at top restaurants; a real-estate maven with a serious cellar; and an educator who was planning a trip to Mendoza, Argentina, along with some people who just enjoyed eating and drinking.
Watson is part of the recent Brooklyn Renaissance. He also owns another wine shop, called Smith & Vine, and Stinky Brooklyn, which offers excellent cheeses, cured meats and other delicacies. Both wine shops focus on small producers, esoteric grapes, organic and biodynamic viticulture and non-interventionist winemaking—all the buzzwords of the "natural" wine trend.
Watson invited Daniel Eardly, chef-owner of Chestnut on Smith, a nearby locavore restaurant, to prepare a vegetarian menu based around the wonderful heirloom tomatoes now flooding local greenmarkets. We also enjoyed a wide selection of cheeses. We sat at a long, high table in the back room, and tasted our way through eight exceedingly eclectic wines.
Most were both surprising and delicious. Few of us had tasted a white wine made from Pinot Noir, much less one from the North Fork of Long Island, but the 2009 Anomaly from Anthony Nappa was bright, fruity and an excellent palate-opener. (I rated it 84 points, non-blind.) It made quite a contrast with the rather austere petrol and piney notes of a mature 2002 Steinreigl Riesling from Prager in Austria (90 points, non-blind). The crowd favorite seemed to be a 2006 Frick Cinsault from Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, which was light-bodied yet intense, with berry, herb and savory notes (89 points, non-blind).
Then came Yannick Pelletier L'Engoulevent 2007 from St.-Chinian in the southern France region of Languedoc, a traditional blend of Grenache, Carignane and Syrah, farmed organically and vinified with minimal sulfur. Watson waxed lyrical about this wine, mostly because of the "natural" approach, but also perhaps because Pelletier's background as a wine-shop owner resonated. He sang its praises, and I watched some people nodding their heads, while others gingerly set down their glasses.
I tasted the wine and was immediately struck by gamy and barnyard notes that overwhelmed a core of plum and cherry. It had some life and depth, but the powerful character of brettanomyces dominated the wine. In one of our normal blind tastings, I would have scored it 70 to 75 points and marked it for retaste.
I tried to be diplomatic. "You have really showed wine's wonderful diversity in this tasting," I said to Patrick and the group. "And I'm sure we all have our favorites. For example, I loved the harmonious maturity of the Austrian Riesling, but some of us may have wondered where the fruit was. And when I hear you praising the St.-Chinian, I appreciate your enthusiasm for biodynamics, which I share. But I have to say that for me, this wine verges on undrinkable. I find strong flavors of earthiness and barnyard, the tell-tale notes of a spoilage yeast called brettanomyces."
Watson looked a bit startled at first, but quickly recovered to agree that the wine showed brett, but for him, those flavors were savage and intriguing, and remained in balance with the fruit and garrigue notes. "I think some winemakers are deliberately inducing a touch of brett to add complexity," he said. "There are wines where I really like that."
So we took a vote. The guests split just about 50-50. The editor and the caterer voted against the wine, but the collector and the traveler both liked it, so it wasn't a matter of knowledge determining judgment. It seemed purely a matter of personal taste. (I later looked up Wine Spectator's blind-tasting review for this wine and found that it had earned 91 points; the tasting note described "a decadent meaty aroma, with refined flavors of wild plum, briar and kirsch." A difference caused by bottle variation, or personal taste?)
We moved on to other wines, and other topics. It was a lively and enjoyable evening, and I'll go back to the store. But I'll have some information that will allow me to put Watson's recommendations in context and, in turn, he now knows something about my palate. We may not always agree on a wine's quality, but at least we will understand what the other tastes, and enjoys.
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — September 13, 2010 11:50am ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — September 13, 2010 1:14pm ET
Anton C Kowalski — Wichita, Kansas — September 13, 2010 5:25pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — September 13, 2010 7:39pm ET
Jordan Horoschak — Houston, TX — September 14, 2010 6:50am ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — September 14, 2010 8:36am ET
Tom Schonhoff — Seattle WA — September 14, 2010 12:35pm ET
Mark Owens — Cincinnati, Oh. — September 14, 2010 1:22pm ET
Jerold Greenfield — Fort Myers, Florida — September 14, 2010 1:47pm ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — September 14, 2010 2:40pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — September 14, 2010 4:38pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — September 14, 2010 4:55pm ET
Greg Sorensen — Brooklyn, NY — September 15, 2010 6:31am ET
Nelson Brooks — Phoenix, AZ — September 15, 2010 9:42am ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — September 16, 2010 3:00pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — September 16, 2010 3:08pm ET
Morgan Dawson — Rochester, NY — September 20, 2010 11:09am ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — September 20, 2010 12:09pm ET
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