Sometimes we Wine Spectator critics take flak for rating wines on the 100-point scale, because anything that scores below 89 or 90 seems not worth drinking. That, of course, is the perception of snobby buyers. We define a wine that scores 85 to 89 points as "very good," and that sounds like it's worth drinking to me.
As it happens, I've been drinking a lot of sub-90 wines the past few days, mainly because I've been spending a few extra days in New York in advance of our New York Wine Experience, visiting friends, going to concerts and theater, and not worrying about achieving an ultimate wine moment with every meal. Maybe I've been lucky, but it's been a string of pleasant stuff.
Saturday night, for example, at an Indian restaurant near Rose Hall, where we heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra play Benny Carter's music, I opened the wine list and my spirits fell. It was one of those short lists with nothing but highly commercial names and no vintages. That's often a sign that no one cares about wines, and you never know how long that bottle has been languishing in a warm storeroom.
But whoever compiled the list had aimed for aromatic whites and soft reds, which at least pointed in the right direction. I spied a familiar name, Rex Hill Pinot Gris, which I knew was bottled under screw cap, so it ought to be fresher. I asked what vintage it was. "I'll show you the bottle," the waiter said, helpfully. He came back with Benton-Lane, not Rex Hill, and for $35 it was 2006, the current available vintage. And it was good, just the kind of fresh melon-y flavor and crisp balance that played nicely with our tandoori chicken and baby eggplant cooked with coconut and peanuts.
We did even better on our arrival Friday evening. A friend took us to Aroma Wine Bar in the East Village, a cozy place with much better Italian food than you would expect at a simple wine bar. I'm still smiling at the taste and texture of the broccoli rabe, sautéed with hints of anchovy and peperoncini, which miraculously balanced the vegetable's bitterness and made it taste almost sweet, cooked thoroughly in the true Italian style. And the sensational pasta, cavatelli with ricotta pepato and the last of the season's asparagus, peas and mint.
I was the only one drinking, so I let the sommelier choose a couple of glasses of wine. I knew neither producer, but Ruggero Prosecco non-vintage had the clean, haunting fruit and lively balance that makes this sparkling wine a fine meal starter. And Apollonio Copertino 2003 from Puglia, a soft, generous blend of Negroamaro, Montepulciano and Black Malvasia grapes, delivered the ripe, tongue-coddling flavors of plums and spices that sidled up well with the pasta. I paid $20 total for the wines.
For Sunday brunch, my wife and I met Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews and his wife, Sara, at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York's best restaurants. We could have splurged on Bollinger RD 1990 or Krug Rosé for hundreds of dollars, but instead I homed in on Müller-Catoir Riesling Spätlese Haardter Bürgergarten 2001. The Pfalz wine from Germany was $68 on the list, and I figured this lightly sweet Riesling with some age on it would match the classy food and the warm sunlight glinting off the green trees in Madison Square Park across the street. It was yummy, if not transcendent, and the sweetness and still-fresh grapefruit and quince flavors played well with my chilled cucumber soup, a silken purée with bits of smoked trout and smoked yogurt in it. Tasted pretty good with a plate of hamachi drizzled with pumpkin seed oil, too.
Later, I checked our Wine Spectator scores for these wines. I had rated the Benton Lane 87 points. The Italian wines had not been reviewed, but James Suckling had scored the previous vintage of the Copertino 86 points, and Bruce Sanderson had tagged the dry version of the '01 Riesling Spätlese 89 points.
Snobs would have ignored these wines because they didn't have a "9" as the first digit on their WS scores, thus missing some pleasing experiences. None of these wines were boring, and each suited the occasion. Best of all, I didn't have to go in hock to drink them. All in all, a pretty good bunch of wines for a fine weekend.