Shocking, Absolutely Shocking

Wherein I scandalize wine snobs of all stripes
Apr 9, 2013

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.

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