You’re going to thank me for this! I’ve discovered the perfect gift for wine lovers of all levels–and it won’t cost an arm and a leg. This is it: “The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert,” by Richard Betts.
Richard Betts is regarded as one of the best sommeliers in America, yet his style is far from stuffy. He is quite the expert–probably not as great an expert as our own Ole Olsen–but enough that he founded 2 wine companies: Betts & Scholl and Scarpetta, and is a featured contributor to The New York Times, Wine Spectator, Food & Wine and many other publications. His recent projects are the creations of “My Essential Red” & “My Essential Rose” wines, but my favorite is his new wine: “St. Glinglin” which he claims is French for “When Pigs Fly.” I have my doubts about the translation, but this much is true: Betts loves to have fun with wines. He is well known for his statement that: “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury.”
So, back to the book. Readers of my earlier blogs may remember my dilemma trying to comprehend wine descriptors. While this book may lack the cat pee and smoky bacon aromas, what it DOES contain is very helpful. Frankly, I’m relieved by the somewhat limited range!
The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and retails for $19.99. I’ve looked for it locally with no success, so ended up ordering it from Amazon for $12.72. OK, so have I made your holiday shopping easier??? Happy Holidays!
As I write from the Arizona border with Mexico where Thanksgiving 2013 finds me, I can’t help recalling past Thanksgivings out of the ordinary. In the early 1950s, for example, I invited some French friends for a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. I had ordered a turkey through the U.S. Air Force Officers’ Mess. My wife had made the dressing, the cranberry sauce, the sweet potatoes, the pecan and quince pies, but when I drove to the Air Base at Toul-Rosieres, the club manager said the turkeys had not come in, so he had a ham ready for us. It had come from a local farmer, the same one my French friends bought hams from. The New Beaujolais carried us through.
A couple of years earlier, we prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in Izmir, Turkey. The U.S. Air Force Chief Engineer cautioned us that city gas pressures were quite low and assigned us Americans lighting times for our ovens so that we would not all be roasting at the same time. The state-owned Kavaklideri Pinot Noir covered our cooking.
In 1993 on Thanksgiving we found ourselves at the Surgeon’s table on the Queen Elizabeth II, and, as third in command he had authority to spare us turkey in favor of a Beef Wellington washed down with 1982 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou.
A couple of years ago, Midwestern storms delayed our annual trek to family in New Mexico, so we found ouselves on the Illinois side of the river from St. Louis at the end of Thanksgiving Day. Only Appleby’s was open — staffed by volunteers. Roast turkey was the only dish on the menu but we were allowed our own bottle of Nuits-St.-Georges.
For a time, my late brother and I alternated Thanksgiving dinners in our Indianapolis and Jackson County homes, and Bill Oliver’s Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah covered my wife’s French style turkey in the finest traditional meal I’ve yet enjoyed on that holiday.
Beaujolais was the umbrella wine for a few of those holiday turkeys in the home of one of our Indiana Wine Fair judges, but when Monsieur Rubio, our neighbor in the Roussillon, hosted us on this unique American holiday with his entire extended family, the food was paella loaded with shell fish and washed down with fresh, young Roussillanaise Blanc.
Gustave Rinn, from his phone in his one-star Michelin restaurant, once asked us if I could get him an American Butterball turkey. I did, and it was the first frozen turkey he had ever seen. His American, German, and French invited guests couldn’t believe that it was a Butterball — or that the wine was an Alsace Pinot Noir.
The most meaningful Thanksgivings, however, occurred during those troubled Viet Nam War days when at the Army European Headquarters in Heidelberg, we would gather with senior commanders, hold hands, and pray for the soldiers and their families. After all, it was the soldiers who made Thanksgivings possible for the rest of us.
Some time ago my wife observed that when I went to a sporting event — or even planned to watch one on television, I would carefully read the local papers about the upcoming game, see the game, then catch the after-game talk show summaries, take time to see the game highlights on the TV news casts, and avidly read all about it in next morning’s paper. She pointed out that my conversations were increasingly making use of words like “Awesome,” “Unbelievable,” “Amazing,” “Disastrous,” or “Unstoppable.”
She was right, of course. More recently, she said I was forming the same habits with wines. I would read about them, try them, catch additional reviews, and inject with regularity into my conversations words like “fruity,” “crisp,” “acidic,” “aromatic,” “long,” etc.
It’s true we all tend to form our vocabularies around our work, our hobbies, and even our friends. Most of us, in spite of the thousands and thousands of words in our language, tend to use the same few words all the time. That certainly applies to wine writing.
There are hundreds of us out there in print and in the blogasphere describing wine, reviewing wine, talking about wine, and, for the most part finding few new adjectives in our literary arsenal. How many times and in how many ways can you describe this or that wine and keep your commentary — well, crisp or fresh? True, a Cabernet is not just a Cabernet, a Cabernet, a Cabernet. They differ one from another, but the words defining those differences seem very limiting, certainly repetitious.
That’s why more and more I turn away from explaining that this Chardonnay is such and such and that one is so and so. I like to know more about where it came from, the personality of the person who produced it, the circumstance by which I met it. Even day-to-day wines sold like commodities take on a bit of character when compared to the village co-ops in European market towns. I allow my thoughts to unfold, much like those of a novelist, when experiencing wine.
One wine lover I admire very much keeps his wine opinions very simple. In his cellar he has wines in three sections labeled “Very Good,” “Good,” and “OK.” He keeps count of them on three chalk boards with the customary four upright stalks diagonally crossed by the fifth stalk. When he removes a bottle from a section, he merely crosses off a stalk. He does distinguish by spacing the various varietals, keeping the Napas from the Barbarescos, for example. No pretension, but bona fide appreciation. His words are unmistakable.
And so I try to keep my words on target. That’s why I thought it unbelievable that that awesome Pinot Noir I had the other night was unbelievably amazing!
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