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Jay McInerney's
Cliff Notes from the Cellar
wine guy jay mcInerney's cliff notes from the cellar
May 2002

The next best thing to knowledge is the appearance of knowledge. I know from personal experience it takes years of reading, tasting, attending tedious multilingual dinners, freezing one's ass off in cold cellars, and nursing headaches to become a certified wine bore. What many of us want is the ability to impress our friends, and especially our enemies, and to be able to spend our money in such a way to certify our connoisseurship. In that spirit I offer the following Cliff Notes on Wine appreciation. These ten rules have taken me half a lifetime to collect, but I offer them as a public service. Master them and you will be able to operate a wine list with dexterity or plan the liquid part of an impressive meal.

1. Avoid artichokes whenever you consume wine. They contain an acid called cynarin, which makes wine taste sweet. Not as bad, but still dangerous, is asparagus, which contains phosphorous and mercaptan, turning most wines ugly. If you are planning a dinner party with wines, leave out these foods. Ditto soup and salad - they are almost impossible to match with wine. If you are at Daniel or Ducasse and you are ordering the tasting menu, tell the chef to skip these foods when he asks if there is anything you don't eat. Turn to your fellow diners and mutter, "Wine killers."

2. Every five years there is a great worldwide vintage, most recently '85, '90, '95. Almost every wine region in the world experienced good to outstanding vintages in these years, the '95's being the most relevant at the moment since they are the most readily available. However...

3. Beware of famous Euro vintages in their youth. For more expensive French (and some Italian) wines, one of the criteria for supposed greatness is the ability to improve with age, which means the wines have an abundance of bitter tannin and acid, and hence may well taste offensive when young (and even when they are old, for that matter). I recently had two vintages of the J. L. Chave Hermitage on successive nights. The first night I had the '88, a "great" vintage. Unfortunately it wasn't nearly ready to drink, requiring another five years or so to shed its nasty, mouth-puckering tannins. The next night I had the '92 - supposedly a lousy vintage. But the wine was wonderful - fruity and perfectly integrated, despite its far cheaper price and mediocre score from Robert M. Parker Jr. Right now the lowly '93 Bordeaux is probably more fun to drink than the far more highly rated, but tannic '95. A corollary to this rule is that great makers almost always make good wine, no matter what vintage.

4. Almost any zinfandel that starts with R is good. For instance Ridge, Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Rabbit Ridge, Rosenblum, Renwood. Ditto any zin that ends in elli. Like Martinelli. We speak of red zinfandel, of course. About white zinfandel, the proper attitude is a lip-curling condescension. The word puhleaz should be uttered.

5. Any good Italian wine that ends in the letters aia is very good indeed. This seems to be the result of the fame of Sassicaia, the so-called Super Tuscan Cabernet. Today you can count on Ornellaia, Solaia, Lupicaia, Brancaia, Tassinaia, and Piastraia. I don't now why, but they are all wonderful.

6. There's no such thing as bad champagne. Unless of course, it has been badly shipped or stored. By champagne, I mean the stuff that comes from the region of that name in north-central France and is imported to the States. The bad ones don't seem to get sent here. There are perfectly decent sparkling wines from other parts of the world, but why bother when you can get the real thing - a non vintage brut - for twenty to thirty bucks? Just for fun order that nobody, including you, has ever heard of. Like J. LaSalle or Henri Germain.

7. Burgundy should follow Bordeaux. And Pinot Noir should follow Cabernet Sauvignon. this advice flies in the face on conventional wisdom to follow lighter wines with heavier wines. But I have found that the sweet fruit of Pinot Noir tends to take the more rugged Cabernet taste bitter. (Merlot-based Bordeaux from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion are the exceptions to the rule.)

8. Almost everybody likes Chardonnay, and California Chardonnay - in almost every price range - is the most idiot-proof wine in the world. Not necessarily subtle. But like Harrison Ford, it gets the job done. Wine snobs love to bash it, though you can have it both ways by saying to your guests, " It's become fashionable to dump on Chardonnay, but we think this Casa Oak is hard to beat." Viognier is way cooler, but you have to know what you're doing.

9. White wine with fish, red with flesh is a pretty reliable rule. But any idiot can follow rules - it's far cooler to break them. Pinot Noir can be great with salmon, particularly grilled salmon. (The oily flesh highlights the bright Pinot fruit.) And sweetish German Riesling is always good with pork and /or veal. If someone else is buying Petrus or Chateau d'Yquem, by all means drink of much of it as you can, no matter what the hell your eating. Give the food to the dog.

10.Finally, the rule I call Don't try this at home: I love red and white Burgundy only slightly less than I love my children. But unless you are prepared to misspend a year or two in your study, and thousands of dollars, stay the hell away from Coted'Or, the source of more tears than country-music radio. Leave it to the experts, baby.

Special Bonus Rule: If you are called upon by a waiter of sommelier to pronounce judgment on a wine, trust your palate. If it tastes nasty, send it back. If it tastes okay but you feel inclined to make some judgment, say, "Needs a little time in the glass."

Read the review of Bacchus & Me

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