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Dan Berger: The blanding of American wine

I saw a tweet the other day in which a wine commentator decried what he said was the peppery taste in a syrah he was reviewing.

The comment was amusing and led me to conclude that the blanding of American wine was nearly complete.

Before setting off on this diatribe against mindless commentary, let me defend myself by saying that the old Latin phrase beginning "De gustibus" still holds true: About matters of taste there is no debate. You like sauerkraut, I don't, and neither one of us is "right."

Still, with wine as with a lot of other consumer goods, there is a standard of quality and then there is a lack of same.

Take for example automobile design. I doubt a single person on the planet would suggest that a Yugo looks better than a Mercedes.

Or music: the worst of Mozart versus the best of polka on an accordion.

With wine, a similar case can be made, and one of the classic cases of myopia, or a simple lack of knowledge, would be to suggest that syrah with a peppery aroma is a bad thing. Indeed, the peppery smell (called rotuntone) in a syrah is an aroma most commonly found in the grape. Having it means it is appropriate to the wine.

After tasting some 30 expensive ($40 and above) syrahs last week at a wine competition, two other judges on the panel and I concluded that U.S. winemakers are happiest when they can make massive wines with high alcohols and damn the torpedoes.

One of the judges with me on the panel was Richard Peterson, a longtime wine maker, and a man who knows about as much about wine, now and historically, as anyone. I asked him his opinion of the syrahs we had just tasted.

He just shook his head and said, "They don't taste very much like syrah, do they?" We gave very few of the wines medals. What they lacked, for the most part, was an aroma called varietal character.


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