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harvey steiman at large

Shocking, Absolutely Shocking

Wherein I scandalize wine snobs of all stripes
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 9, 2013 1:40pm ET

Most people know me as a pretty reasonable guy. But I apparently have the ability to stun people with my wine behavior. You should have seen the jaws drop one hot day in Oregon when I swirled ice cubes into a glass of Pinot Noir in front of a crowd of wine lovers. Oh, the horror!

I was part of a panel conducting a public tasting. It must have been a sultry 95° F in that room, so hot that all the wines just tasted like soup. The small pours had already matched the elevated room temperature. As we each had glasses of ice water, I transferred an ice cube into the first glass, swirled it around and removed the ice. Voila! The wine tasted fresher and much more appealing. I repeated the process just before sipping each successive wine, and the distinctions among them became much clearer.

Undeterred by the audible gasps, I explained how the brief contact with the ice had made the wine show me what the winemaker intended. Sure, some of the water had melted into the wine, but what do you think many winemakers do if the alcohol level climbs higher than they might like? It may not be ideal, but adding water can make the wines better. In this case, the drop in temperature more than compensated for any dilution. (And besides, many wines today have enough density and extract that a tiny amount of dilution can only help.)

Only about 20 percent of that room full of wine aficionados followed my lead, but several of them later thanked me for giving them permission to enjoy the wines better. They did, however, drop their voices as if confiding a state secret. That's how powerful wine snobbery can seem.

Wine snobs mean well, but they usually end up limiting someone's enjoyment. Most often it's because of basic misunderstandings about what wine is, how it works and how we all perceive it differently. Allow me to share a few examples.

If the remedy for hot soupy wine is an ice cube, what do you do about wine that's too cold? Getting wine to a happy temperature seems to be a challenge for restaurants that pluck white wines and rosés right out the refrigerator. Cold wines will eventually warm up in the glass so you can actually appreciate their aromatics. But if I am at home, I microwave it for a few seconds, and it's like a different wine.

Wine in the microwave? I must be kidding, right? Well, no. All the microwaves do is excite water molecules in the wine, creating heat. Most microwave ovens take about 1 minute to bring 4 ounces of water from refrigerator temperature to boiling, or about 3 degrees per second. Give a 4-ounce glass of refrigerated wine 5 to 8 seconds and it will only raise the temperature to a more agreeable level.

Somehow this horrifies some people. But no one has yet been able to explain how this affects a glass of wine any differently from simply letting it stand at room temperature for 15 or 20 minutes, when the laws of thermodynamics say it will arrive at the same temperature as the air in the room. The difference is, I can enjoy it right away.

(I have also been known to freeze leftover wine I won't be able to finish within a day or two, a trick I learned from a certified Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. But I digress.)

Snobbery also extends to ridiculing the tastes of others. Recently, wine snobs on Twitter had some fun mocking the actress (and now part-time vintner) Drew Barrymore when a video of her introducing her wine label caught her saying that her Pinot Grigio has "a beautiful nose and is lacking in acidity." One critic said, "I think she just set back wine tasting five years." Another chimed in, "And she gave us the insight that the ladiezzz like to put ice in their wine."

I haven't tasted her Pinot Grigio, but a quick Web search says it just won a gold medal at the largest international wine competition in France, so somebody likes it. But it seems that the kind of wine she likes clearly does not conform to what a real wine drinker should want, if you get my drift. She said, "I've always ordered Pinot Grigio in restaurants, because it's a surefire way to get a wine that's not too buttery, too acidic or overly fruity," and, she added, that's the sort of wine she and her friends enjoy drinking.

Correct me if I am wrong here, but aren't we so-called experts always saying that all of us should learn what we like and seek out other wines that have those characteristics? Sure, some of us want to explore the nooks and crannies of unusual wines, but if Barrymore just wants to enjoy something pleasant with lunch or dinner, why must she conform to someone else's standards? She's an intelligent human being who understands her own preferences.

I applaud her. Stop that snickering in the back—you folks are probably the same people who believe that they should not serve their best wines to anyone who is too inexperienced with wine to appreciate them. I find that ungenerous to a fault. Just ask yourself how you came to appreciate great wines. Somebody poured one for you first, right?

I do understand that someone who has never tasted a great Hermitage might, in their first sip, fail to catch the nuances of minerality, appreciate the complex fruit and spice flavors or feel the highly polished tannins. But you don't need a degree in wine tasting to appreciate how deliciously different it is. Heck, even Drew Barrymore might like it.

Don't be Richard Nixon, famous for snobbishly keeping a bottle of classic Bordeaux for himself while his guests drank other wines. Open the best stuff in your cellar and pour it without ceremony or preamble for anyone you really like. And watch their reactions. Sharing it will be worth it.

Jon Bonne
San Francisco, CA —  April 9, 2013 2:42pm ET
Harvey, as one of the wine critics in question ("five years") I have no issue whatsoever with putting an ice cube in wine. Done it before. Will surely do it again.

I do, however, have an issue with a famous actress commissioning a wine without in any way seeming to be personally invested in the wine itself, and then appearing on camera talking about it in a way that not only comes across as ill-informed, but also promoting it by suggesting that it's a simple wine for girlfriends to enjoy -- and describing it in the least appetizing way possible. Lacking in acidity? Are we supposed to be glad for that?

Watch the full video. It offended me for reasons having nothing to do with ice cubes. I can only imagine how it came across to the many women in the wine industry who have worked tirelessly to prove that they are serious, informed tasters.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 9, 2013 3:12pm ET
Jon, there's a lot to unpack in your comment.

I watched the video again. "Lacking in acidity" would be just the thing to communicate "soft wine" to people who like such wines but don't know how to express it in winespeak. She says clearly that her wine is the kind of wine and she and her friends like, and does not suggest that it's for women in general.

I don't know how involved she was in the making and selection of the wines, but she never claims to make the wine. Or even suggests that she did. But it's her name on the line either way.

As for setting back wine tasting, maybe we all need to get past the idea that everyone should like the wines we do. Significantly, she does not denigrate those who may have different ideas of what they like than she and her friends do.

Finally, I can't speak for women wine professionals, but I also can't see generalizing about a whole gender from one woman's comments.
Mr Andrew J Green
OP, KS —  April 9, 2013 10:25pm ET
Touche, Mr. Steiman.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, California —  April 9, 2013 10:34pm ET
I don't see how Drew's comment would reflect on me. I'm still a serious and informed taster.

That said, it makes me happy to see that wine has become so mainstream in our society, and hope we can all be patient as new wine lovers find a vocabulary to express what they like (and don't) about wine.
David Williams
Carlsbad CA —  April 9, 2013 11:31pm ET
Oh, oh Harvey. According to a thread in the Dining and Cooking forum you're not even suppose to OWN a microwave. Wine snobs? These guy are appliance snobs.
Steve Trachsel
poway, CA —  April 10, 2013 12:57am ET
At first I thought this blog was left over from April Fools Day...and adding ice to wine reminds me of an old teammates girlfriend adding ice to the glass of 86 Margaux I had just poured her. (Yes I freaked out)

As for the microwave, I think a new class has just been created at UC Davis.

Since Im always looking to learn I will give them both a try...ice before microwave though for sure.

Go Giants and hope to see you in Vegas..
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 10, 2013 2:39am ET
No April Fool's this time, Steve. Fear not the microwave. Just be sure to set it for 5-8 seconds, not minutes.

Unfortunately I will miss the Las Vegas (and San Francisco) events this year. But if you're in SF when the Giants are, let's go to a game.
Peter Mc Kenna
Cincinnati, OH —  April 10, 2013 4:50pm ET
I'm curious, how do you freeze and defrost the wine without damaging it?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 10, 2013 6:10pm ET
Peter, there is damage to the wine if you freeze and thaw it, but it's better than letting it get stale in the bottle, which most will after a day or two. Recork the bottle and stand it up in the freezer (so the "wrong" side of the cork won't affect the wine). When it has frozen solid, lay it down it you prefer. To thaw the wine, just let it stand at room temp for a couple of hours, or heat the wine in the microwave oven just until there's only a small chunk of ice left in it. You will need to decant it; the freeze-and-thaw will create tartrate crystals and tannic wines might throw some coarse sediment. You will find the wine to be softer as well. But the flavors will be fresh.

I used to do this a lot, but since I got some Wine Shields I use them when we can't finish a bottle in a couple of days.
Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  April 12, 2013 12:05pm ET
Living in Texas we frequently have the same problem with heat. I keep grapes in the freezer, drop two or three frozen grapes in the glass to cool it off a bit. No dilution and a little snack.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  April 14, 2013 7:54pm ET
Late comment here, but what I think is lost in the ice cube debate: is a 95 degree Pinot what a winemaker intended? Brief contact with an ice cube is no more of a violation than extreme temps, it seems to me. Why would any tasting event think serving wine that warm is acceptable?

As for Pinot Grigio. It's not my first choice for a white wine but I think when you criticize someone for drinking any wine, it says more about your mind set then anything else.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 14, 2013 8:04pm ET
Tim, thanks for chiming in.

And I like the idea of frozen grapes instead of ice cubes. It's genius because the grape skins will prevent the thawing fruit from diluting the wine.
Paul Jacroux
Kirkland, Washington, USA —  April 14, 2013 8:33pm ET
Bravo! Every once in awhile I read something that I think is important enough to save. This piece is now in my computer's memory.
Ken Scherfee
Sacramemnto, CA —  April 15, 2013 7:33am ET
What a refreshingly honest bit of writing. Simply superb, and long overdue.
This article reminded me of an American tycoon known to dine in his office on a Big Mac or two and washing it down with Petrus. Oh, the humanity!
Thanks for injecting humor into a horribly narcissistic and droll branch of the wine industry- - The Wine Afficianados, aka Posers. BTW, in Sacramento, ice cubes are common in red wine when the thermometer lingers above 94 degrees fahrenheit at dinner time. Come on out for a glass this summer!
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  April 15, 2013 2:29pm ET
Hi guys, as you may also be aware, there are stones that some people stick in the freezer to cool their scotch which also might work; a broken grape skin could conceivably impart flavours to the wine . . . Just another thought.

;-)
Joshua Hull
Lancaster, PA —  April 21, 2013 12:42am ET
Harvey, I couldn't agree more with you more. I quickly discovered how much better reds taste in the high 50's to low 60 degree ranges (and whites/roses in the low to mid 50's). If an ice cube or microwave is the best option you have, then go for it. I am curious, though, when doing blind tastings for the Wine Spectator, do you have the ability to keep wines at such precise temperatures? I use a thermoelectric cooler to do so at home, but I assume your tastings are conducted in rooms at standard room temperature, 70 degrees or above. Your ratings are very accurate and reliable - I assume you have the ability to taste wines at their optimum temperature, but wonder how this happens.
James James
Springfield —  April 24, 2013 12:43pm ET
I have used the microwave to warm my leftover red wine that I keep in the refrigerator to extend its life after opening. Can't say it happens often, though.

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