By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Wine can be described in many different ways by any number of tasters. One man's "ethereal" may be another's "austere," and a wine described as "lush and rich" someone else may see as "fat and blowsy." During tastings at the Wine Spectator offices in New York, I always try to drop in on my fellow tasters to compare notes and perceptions of wines, not only to learn more, but to make sure I haven't veered off onto some bizarre descriptive tangent.
Also, when I'm tasting I always try to keep in mind how much actual enjoyment a given wine offers. This is sometimes harder than it seems. During official Wine Spectator tastings--when I'm rating wines on the 100-point scale--I am presented with about two dozen bottles wrapped in brown paper bags tied off with rubber bands. (This is to make sure I do not know the identity of a given wine.) The bottles are lined up on a plain formica table in a brightly lit room, with a computer waiting to receive my notes and ratings. Not the most conducive environment to truly enjoy the wine, but a fair and neutral setting that lends itself to objectively evaluating what's in the bottle.
To bring some perspective to this exercise, I find I must step back in my mind and imagine how most wines are enjoyed--that is, with food or during a meal. It's not an overriding factor, but merely a way to balance what can become a fairly esoteric enterprise with a dose of real-world grounding. And it's what I believe most Wine Spectator readers are looking for as well.
I was reminded of this recently when my wife, Wendy, and I went on a small hike and picnic with another couple, Sophie and Tom. They like wine and are eager to learn more, especially about finding value-priced bottlings that are both distinctive and pleasurable. Recently, when we visited their home, I noticed a bottle of 1995 Chateau St.-Germain, a robust red wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of the south of France, that I knew as a great bargain from a recent tasting. We have known for a while that Tom and Sophie like to hike, but this discovery offered a whole new avenue of enjoyment: friends who could enjoy the outdoors and also enjoy wine.
In fact, some of my fondest memories of wine are set in the outdoors. I must admit that on some longer backpacking trips, weight can become an issue, and more often than not I opt for a good Bourbon for sheer efficiency's sake. But on less strenuous excursions, wine--either in its original bottle or poured into a neutral plastic container, such as a camper's bottle--is one of the prime rewards at the end of a long day on the trail. My favorites: cru bourgeois Bordeaux and California Zinfandel. There's usually no worry about serving at cellar temperature, because by the time dinner rolls around, the evening air is usually cellar temperature. Another good bet on the trail: Port.
But I digress. For our trip with Sophie and Tom, the goal was simple: a quick hoof up to a summit called Mount Tammany, in northwestern New Jersey. Sophie is European by birth, a French-speaking Belgian to be exact, so we decided that she would bring the cheese and sausage. I was responsible for the wine, the bread and some fruit.
I brought a red and a white, each of which cost less than $10 a bottle. The red was a Beringer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Founder's Reserve 1996, and the white was a 1997 Pinot Blanc from Alsace, made by Dopff & Irion. Both wines rested in a small ice chest on the way out, and to keep the white cool during the hike, I wrapped it in a brown paper bag with three small sealed containers of "blue ice," a useful man-made substance that can be frozen and reused. I have found that this can keep a bottle of wine cool for up to four hours on even the hottest day, and without the mess of melting ice.
It was a steep, rocky and crowded trail on the way to the top, but the weather was glorious. The forest was aglow in autumnal colors, and I stripped down to a T-shirt in the warmth of an Indian-summer afternoon in late October. We reached the top, which, like most mountains in the East, bears a forested summit. To get away from the crowds, we left the trail and struck off through the open forest.
Fortunately, we soon arrived at a clearing that afforded fine views of the surrounding countryside. Below, the Delaware River shimmered and snaked its way through a narrow gorge. The undulating ridges of the Appalachians defined the western horizon.
We soon spread out our lunch on a convenient boulder. We matched Camembert, Brie and a pepper sausage with a baguette, the Cabernet and Alsace white and plenty of apples. I wasn't sure how Sophie and Tom would react to the wines, but they soon allayed my fears. The Alsace was "refreshing and fruity"; the Cabernet, "ripe and spicy." No technical descriptions or long analysis, but merely the way wine is meant to be enjoyed in the company of friends, with good food and a marvelous setting. The wines were not particularly complex or memorable in and of themselves, but they were the perfect picnic wines, quickly and happily consumed. We drank the white first, then the red, which proved an especially good match with a dessert of chocolate chip cookies.
Too soon the wine was gone, but perhaps for the best, as we faced that rocky and narrow trail on the way back. Like any good picnic, this one was finished off with a relaxing snooze, and we reclined amid a low growth of blueberry bushes turned crimson by the shortening days. The picnic on Mount Tammany is now one of those images I can call upon the next time I face a long line of wines in paper bags waiting for whatever score may come.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus, in a column also appearing in the current Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.