I began writing about wine as a protest.
Not because I didn’t like wine—I love wine and have from the moment as an undergraduate at Rice that I first tasted a great red Bordeaux, even if from a minor vintage (Ch. Lynch-Bages, 1967)—but because I had been spoiled. I’d spent six mostly very happy years in New Haven as a graduate student in History and American Studies. I was lucky. I’d gotten into Yale on a fellowship that covered my full tuition—$4,800 or so, which seemed astronomical to me at the time. And because I had generous and loving parents. And because I was spoiled. My parents were not rich—far, far from it—but I was their only child, and they were indulgent, to say the least.
And so, for my first two years in New Haven, I got along, as grad students do, then became a teaching assistant, earning real money, so to speak. Which was almost like play money since my indulgent parents were paying the rent.
Which was when I discovered Mount Carmel Wine & Spirits just outside of New Haven, and the first of my great wine tutors, the cherub-faced Bob Feinn, who proved to be infinitely kind and generous with his time and his immense knowledge of wine, including old wine and the history of the wine trade. Looking back at my notes—I was a note keeper from the beginning—I see that I paid on average $5 a bottle for most of the wines I drank in those years. Doesn’t sound like much, but in today’s dollars, figuring for inflation, that $5 in 1978 would get you almost $20 today. With Bob’s guidance, I drank well: The first case of wine I ever bought was Ockfener Bockstein Spätlese (Dr. Fischer) from the sumptuously rich 1976 vintage in the Mosel. That was $60 or so well spent! Later, there would be my first big splurge: a case of 1975 Ch. Lascombes ($120). It was damned good too, both young and old, belying the general reputation of Lascombes in those days.
Spoiled indeed, but all good things do often come to an end. In the fall of 1982, I moved to Philadelphia, where I would spend the next nine years in exile, teaching English at Penn. That’s where the protests started. Living in Center City Philadelphia, I’d found a real villain in the wretched Pennsylvania State Store system.
My first look at the State Store system resulted in profound shock. The store, located smack in the heart of Center City, was filthy. There was an armed guard at the entrance. The staff were utterly incompetent and ignorant beyond words. And the selection was like a song: “Thirteen Bottles of Beaujolais on the Wall,” one worse than the next. Thirteen different, indifferent Beaujolais, and a half-dozen or so Bordeaux crus, mostly from mediocre to terrible vintages. When I arrived in Philly, the prime choices were 1974 Ch. Léoville-Barton (undrinkable, the color, texture and taste of iodine) and 1974 Ch. Talbot (rich, for the vintage and shockingly good), both for about $10. What had the Cordiers done at Talbot that old Major Barton hadn’t done at Léoville? Probably, Jean Cordier and his team had dosed the ’74 with ’75. It had to have been something like that. That ’74 Talbot was just about the only drinkable Bordeaux on the shelves at the State Stores, so I drank a lot of it over the next several years. (The supply was seemingly endless. Had the State Stores bought the entire harvest of the château? No, but obviously they had bought one helluva lot of it. Thank god for little miracles!)
This was at a time when the truly, profoundly great 1982 Bordeaux vintage had begun to be sold in Manhattan and Scarsdale for a song as futures: The vintage was huge, the dollar was absurdly overpriced ($1=10 French Francs, double the normal rate of exchange), and, apart from Terry Robards, William Sokolin and Robert Finigan, the wine world knew that the vintage was special. I was already reading Decanter, and I knew from the likes of the British M.W.’s Peppercorn, Coates and Broadbent that this was the real deal. The most important French critic of the time, Michel Bettane, was saying the same things in La Revue du Vin de France (the famous RVF). And the wines…were dirt cheap.
Talbot’s stablemate Gruaud-Larose and the hard-as-nails-when-young Montrose were $120 the case as futures at Garnet, a major Manhattan-based retailer at the time. (The 2016 Château Montrose currently sells for a worldwide average of $230—per bottle.) Back in 1984, Pontet-Canet was $72-$84 a case. De Sales, less than that. I can even remember buying some of the then-lesser St.-Émilion Grand Cru Classés, such as Trimoulet and La Tour-Figeac, for $10 or so a bottle when the ‘82s finally appeared on Manhattan retail shelves.
Seeing these prices elsewhere made me even more furious with the State Stores’ extremely limited selection. So, being a writer, I turned to words to get my revenge and started my wine writing career at one of Philadelphia’s so-called “alternative” newspapers.
Moving to New York in the early ‘90s, I continued my wine writing with a regular weekly column for the “peach-colored paper,” The New York Observer, and later, for a decade at The American Lawyer magazine. Though still based in New York, I was also the wine columnist for Boston magazine for the better part of a decade, beginning in the mid-late-‘90s. In between and afterwards, I wrote about wine for New York magazine, Food & Wine, Fortune, and Texas Monthly, amongst other venues; and was for long a contributing writer at Wine & Spirits under the estimable Josh Greene.
But now here I am, an equable, experienced old wine lover, with no particular villains in my sights. What I can offer is a wealth of experience, a world of experience, in tasting wine, visiting wine country, and discussing winemaking, the wine trade, and wine writing with a host of characters, both in and out of the business.
So, let’s begin with what I’ve been drinking lately. Not tasting as, in going to formal tastings, free tastings to the trade and to professional wine writers, but drinking. Wines that I bought, on my dime.
And the first thing to say is that, contrary to how my old friend Eric Asimov identifies “bargain Burgundy” as having a $50 (or higher) price tag, I, and I’m sure, most of you reading this column, have rather a different idea. The day of the $5 bargain burgundy is surely long gone, but there are still some terrific buys out there in the $15-$35 range, which will be my focus.
There’s plenty to choose from, if you’re careful about it, look for bargains, and buy solid cases or mixed cases for the discounts. You’ll almost always get 10% off on a mixed case, though in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you can usually get 20% off—and pay no taxes!
Where to begin? Well, in honor of those long-ago Yale Days, let me begin where it all really began for me, in the Mosel, with three wonderful estate wines whose current prices more or less reflect the $5 Mr. Lincoln (with inflation) that I used to spend way back when:
Von Hövel, one of the famous owners of the jewel of the Mosel, Scharzhofberger, is also the owner of a monopole (a “monopollage,” in the German) Hütte Oberemmel. The brisk 2017 Riesling Kabinett comes in at a mere 7.5% stated alcohol. The wine is appropriately steely, slatey and fine. Perfect summer drinking—and very elegant it is too.
Selbach Oster, another of the great names in the Mosel, is a major owner in Zeltingen. Selbach’s Zeltinger Sonnenuhr lies cheek to jowl with the more famous Wehlener Sonnenuhr—and in the right hands and in the right vintage can give the neighbor a run for its money. In 2016, the estate made both a regular Spätlese (8% stated alcohol) and a Spätlese * (7.5%). They’re both marvelous, but, for me, the starred version is just a bit more concentrated, a bit more exciting. Lovely, lilting Mosel slatey fruit.
I’ve consumed both these Zeltinger wines repeatedly over the past few weeks because of the enjoyment they provided for the price. As with von Hövel’s Hütte, I bought a case of each. I doubt I will regret it either.
Two points to bear in mind about German wines: One, the alcohol. Traditional, off-dry German wines (Kabinett and upwards) should come in on the low side, 7.5%, 8.0% or so stated-alcohol. I get suspicious when the alcohol is much above that point because the higher alcohol reflects riper grapes with lower acidity, the critical aspect of German wines that keeps them lively.
Another is an adage to remember: Yes, it is, as WRO columnist Michael Apstein says, all about the grower: Producer, producer, producer. But, if you’re uncertain as to the producer, check the back of the label. Terry Theise’s German selection is superb. He represents, among others, Selbach. Another German specialist importer, Schatzl, who represents Von Hövel, can also be trusted.
I can’t think of anything better to drink in summer than good Mosels, but for a year-round house wine, I love Kuentz-Bas’ delectable Alsace blend, a Kermit Lynch selection which I’ve been buying for almost a decade. The blend may vary, but the quality does not. The 2018, a steal at $15, pulls together four typical Alsace grapes: Sylvaner (65%), Muscat (15%), Pinot Gris (10%), and Gewürztraminer (10%). Light, lemony, utterly unoaked with real Alsace character. The 15% of Muscat makes this one perhaps a bit more ethereal than some—I mean that in a good sense! Remarkably elegant for what it is.
Kermit Lynch also happens to bring in two of my favorite year-round red house wines, both from the Côte de Brouilly in Beaujolais, Château Thivin and Madame Chanrion’s Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes. Lately, I’ve been drinking a trio of vintages from these two producers. The ‘16s are classic, beautifully balanced and on the lighter side; the ‘17s a bit more structured; and the ‘18s, of course, are rich and full of ripe fruit, sometimes a bit ungainly, but not Madame Chanrion’s! Retail prices for all three are in the mid-$20.
I’m a big fan of the Beaujolais Crus—for value—and will be returning to this theme in future columns, as well as columns about individual importers. Meantime, I rejoice in knowing that my $5 from 1978, with inflation figured in, can still go a long way.
Beat that for value, Eric! Real value, that is.