Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide: Fifth Edition


Thoroughly revised and updated, this fifth edition of the Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide has been eagerly awaited by seasoned collectors and occasional drinkers alike. No one wants to waste his or her precious dollars on an unenjoyable bottle, and with Parker's advice in hand, no one ever will. Employing his famous 100-point rating system, Parker rates more than 8,000 wines from all the major wine-producing regions in the world -- including Austria for the first time ever. Each wine producer is evaluated separately,...
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Thoroughly revised and updated, this fifth edition of the Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide has been eagerly awaited by seasoned collectors and occasional drinkers alike. No one wants to waste his or her precious dollars on an unenjoyable bottle, and with Parker's advice in hand, no one ever will. Employing his famous 100-point rating system, Parker rates more than 8,000 wines from all the major wine-producing regions in the world -- including Austria for the first time ever. Each wine producer is evaluated separately, and Parker's independence allows him to be completely honest in his opinions. In addition, the book includes other essential information such as how to buy and store wine, how to spot a badly stored and abused bottle, and how to find the best wine values for under $10.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684800141
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 11/16/1999
  • Edition description: fifth
  • Edition number: 5
  • Pages: 1704
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 2.36 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction 11
How to Use This Guide 11
Organization 11
Viticultural Areas Covered 11
Rating the Producers and Crowers 12
Vintage Summaries 12
Tasting Notes and Ratings 13
Quoted Priees 14
Wine Price Guide 15
The Role of a Wine Critie 15
About Wine 18
How to Buy Wine 18
How to Store Wine 19
The Question of How Much Aging 20
How to Serve Wine 22
Food and Wine Matchups 24
What's Been Added to Your Wine? 27
Organic Wines 28
The Dark Side of Wine 28
The Growing International Standardization of Wine Styles 28
Destroying the Joy of Wine by Excessive Acidification, Overzealous Fining, and Abrasive Filtration 29
The Inflated Wine Pricing of Restaurants 31
Collectors versus Consumers 31
Unspeakable Practices 33
Wine Producers' Greed 34
Wine Writers' Ethies and Competence 35
What Constitutes a Great Wine? 37
The Wines Of Western Europe 41
Chapter 1 France 43
Alsace 43
Bordeaux 75
Burgundy and Beaujolais 273
Champagne 713
The Loire Valley 721
Languedoc-Roussillon 733
Provence 742
The Rhone Valley 749
Bergerac and the Southwest 883
Chapter 2 Italy 887
Piedmont 887
Tuscany 973
Chapter 3 Germany and Austria 1065
Chapter 4 Spain and Portugal 1082
The Wines Of North America 1147
Chapter 5 California 1149
Chapter 6 Oregon 1519
Chapter 7 Washington State 1539
The Best Of The Rest 1567
Chapter 8 Australia and New Zealand 1569
Chapter 9 Argentina and Chile 1656
Index 1659
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This book is both an educational and a buying manual; it is not an encyclopedic listing of wine producers and growers. It is intended to make the reader a more formidable, more confident wine buyer by providing sufficient insider's information to permit the wisest possible choice when making a wine-buying decision. The finest producers as well as the best known (not necessarily a guarantee of quality) from the world's greatest viticultural regions are evaluated, as well as many of the current and upcoming releases available in the marketplace. If readers cannot find a specific vintage of a highly regarded wine, they still have at their fingertips a wealth of information and evaluations concerning the best producers for each viticultural area. Readers should be confident in knowing that they will rarely make a mistake (unless, of course, the vintage is absolutely dreadful) with a producer rated "outstanding" or "excellent" in this buying manual. These producers are the finest and most consistent in the world. Taste is obviously subjective, but I have done my best to provide an impartial and comprehensive consumer's guide, whose heart, soul, and value are the evaluations (star ratings) of the world's finest producers.

Note: Readers should recognize that my assistant, Pierre-Antoine Rovani, has written the tasting notes and numerical scores for the following chapters: Red Burgundy, White Burgundy, Washington State, Alsace, Oregon, The Loire Valley, Germany, and New Zealand.

Each section on a specific viticultural region covered in this manual is generally organized as follows:
1. An overview of the viticultural region
2. A buying strategy
3. A summary of the quality of recent vintages for the area
4. A quick reference chart to that area's best producers/growers
5. Tasting commentaries, a specific numerical rating for the wine, and a general retail price range for a 750 ml bottle of wine. (See the Wine Price Guide on page 15, which explains the coding system.)

This guide covers the world's major viticultural regions. In Western Europe, France and Italy receive the most detailed coverage, followed by Spain, Portugal, and Germany. In North America, California receives significant coverage, reflecting its dominance in the marketplace. The wine regions that are represented most significantly in wine shops are given much more detailed coverage than minor areas whose wines are rarely seen in or exported to the United States. Consequently, the sections dealing with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley in France; Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy; and California receive priority in terms of the amount of coverage because those regions produce the world's greatest wines. In each section there is a thorough analysis of the region's producers, its overachievers and underachievers, as well as the region's greatest wine values.

Who's who in the world of wine becomes readily apparent after years of tasting the wines and visiting the vineyards and wine cellars of the world's producers and growers. Great producers are, unfortunately, still quite rare, but certainly more growers and producers today are making better wine, with better technology and more knowledge. The charts that follow rate the best producers on a five-star system, awarding five stars and an "outstanding" to those producers deemed to be the very best, four stars to those producers who are "excellent," three stars to "good" producers, and two stars to those producers rated "average." Since the aim of this book is to provide you with the names of the very best producers, its overall content is dominated by the top producers rather than the less successful ones.

Those few growers/producers who have received five-star ratings are those who make the world's finest wines, and they have been selected for this rating because of the following two reasons: 1) They make the greatest wine of their particular viticultural region, and 2) they are remarkably consistent and reliable even in mediocre and poor vintages. Ratings, whether they be numerical ratings of individual wines or classifications of growers, are always likely to create controversy among not only the growers but among wine tasters themselves. But if done impartially, with a global viewpoint and firsthand, on-the-premises (sur place) knowledge of the wines, the producers, and the type and quality of the winemaking, such ratings can be reliable and powerfully informative. The important thing for readers to remember is that those growers/producers who received either a four-star or five-star rating are producers to search out; I suspect few consumers will ever be disappointed with one of their wines. The three-star-rated growers/producers are less consistent but can be expected to make average to above-average wines in the very good to excellent vintages. Their weaknesses can be either from the fact that their vineyards are not as strategically placed, or because for financial or other reasons they are unable to make the severe selections necessary to make only the finest-quality wine.

The rating of the growers/producers of the world's major viticultural regions is perhaps the most important point in this book. Years of wine tasting have taught me many things, but the more one tastes and assimilates the knowledge of the world's regions, the more one begins to isolate the handful of truly world-class growers and producers who seem to rise above the crowd in great as well as mediocre vintages. I always admonish consumers against blind faith in one grower or producer, or in one specific vintage. But the producers and growers rated "outstanding" and "excellent" are as close to a guarantee of high quality as you are likely to find.

Although wine advertisements proclaiming "a great vintage" abound, I have never known more than several viticultural areas of the world to have a great vintage in the same year. The chances of a uniformly great vintage are extremely remote, simply because of significantly different microclimates, soils, and so on in every wine-producing region. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because Bordeaux had great vintages in 1982, 1989, and 1990, every place else in Europe did too. Certainly in 1982 nothing could have been further from the truth. Nevertheless, a Bordeaux vintage's reputation unfortunately seems to dictate what the world thinks about many other wine-producing areas. This obviously creates many problems, since in poor Bordeaux vintages the Rhône or Alsace or Champagne could have an excellent vintage, and in great Bordeaux vintages those same areas could have bad years because of poor climate conditions. For California, many casual observers seem to think every year is a top year, and this image is, of course, promoted by that state's publicity-conscious Wine Institute. It may be true that California rarely has a disastrous vintage, but tasting certainly proves that 1988 and 1989 are different in style and more irregular in quality than either 1994 or 1995. Yet no other viticultural area in the world has enjoyed as many consecutive great vintages as California has in the nineties; 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, and probably 1997 have all been terrific years for California. In this guide, there are vintage summaries for each viticultural area because the vintages are so very different in both quantity and quality. Never make the mistake of assuming that one partic ular year is great everywhere or poor everywhere. I know of no year when that has happened.

When possible, most of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions; in other words, the same type of wines are tasted against each other, and the producers' names are not known. The ratings reflect an independent, critical look at the wines. Neither price nor the reputation of the grower/producer affects the rating in any manner. I spend three months of every year tasting in vineyards. During the other nine months, I devote six- and sometimes seven-day workweeks solely to tasting and writing. I do not participate in wine judgings or trade tastings for many reasons, but principal among these are the following: 1) I prefer to taste from an entire bottle of wine, 2) I find it essential to have properly sized and cleaned professional tasting glasses, 3) the temperature of the wine must be correct, and 4) I prefer to determine the amount of time allocated for the number of wines I will critique.

The numerical rating given is a guide to what I think of the wine vis-à-vis its peer group. Certainly, wines rated above 85 are good to excellent, and any wine rated 90 or above will be outstanding for its particular type. While some would suggest that scoring is not well suited to a beverage that has been romantically extolled for centuries, wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full-time wine professionals recognize, and there are benchmark wines against which all others can be judged. I know of no one with three or four different glasses of wine in front of him or her, regardless of how good or bad the wines might be, who cannot say "I prefer this one to that one." Scoring wines is simply taking a professional's opinion and applying a numerical system to it on a consistent basis. Moreover, scoring permits rapid communication of information to expert and novice alike.

The score given for a specific wine reflects the quality of the wine at its best. I often tell people that evaluating a wine and assigning a score to a beverage that will change and evolve in many cases for up to ten or more years is analogous to taking a photograph of a marathon runner. Much can be ascertained, but, like a picture of a moving object, the wine will also evolve and change. I try to retaste wines from obviously badly corked or defective bottles, since a wine from such a single bad bottle does not indicate an entirely spoiled batch. If retasting is not possible, I will reserve judgment on that wine. Many of the wines reviewed have been tasted several times, and the score represents a cumulative average of the wine's performance in tastings to date. Scores do not reveal the most important facts about a wine. The written commentary (tasting notes) that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine's style and personality, its relative quality level vis-à-vis its peers, and its relative value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.

Here, then, is a general guide to interpreting the numerical ratings:
90-100 is equivalent to an A and is given for an outstanding or a special effort. Wines in this category are the very best produced for their type. There is a big difference between a 90 and a 99, but both are top marks. Few wines actually make it into this top category, simply because there are not that many truly great wines.
80-89 is equivalent to a B in school, and such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very good. Many of the wines that fall into this range are often great values as well. I have many of these wines in my personal cellar.
70-79 represents a C, or an average mark, but obviously 79 is a much more desirable rating than 70. Wines that receive scores between 75 and 79 are generally pleasant, straightforward wines that lack complexity, character, or depth. If inexpensive, they may be ideal for uncritical quaffing.
Below 70 is a D or an F, depending on where you went to school. It is a sign of an unbalanced, flawed, or terribly dull or diluted wine that is of little interest to the discriminating consumer.

Note: A point score in parentheses (75-80) signifies an evaluation made before the wine was bottled.

In terms of awarding points, my scoring system gives a wine 50 points to start with. The wine's general color and appearance merit up to 5 points. Since most wines today have been well made thanks to modern technology and the increased use of professional oenologists, most tend to receive at least 4, often 5 points. The aroma and bouquet merit up to 15 points, depending on the intensity level and dimension of the aroma and bouquet, as well as the wine's cleanliness. The flavor and finish merit up to 20 points, and again, intensity of flavor, balance, cleanliness, and depth and length on the palate are all important considerations when giving out points. Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement -- aging -- merits up to 10 points.

Scores are important for the reader to gauge a professional critic's overall qualitative placement of a wine vis-à-vis its peers. However, it is also vital to consider the description of the wine's style, personality, and potential. No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same experienced taster without prejudice, 1) can quantify different levels of wine quality, and 2) can be a responsible, reliable, uncensored, and highly informative account that provides the reader with one professional's judgment. There can never be any substitute, however, for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.

For a number of reasons, no one's suggested retail price for a particular wine is valid throughout the country. Take Bordeaux as an example. Bordeaux is often sold as "wine futures" 2 full years before the wine is bottled and shipped to America. This opening or base price can often be the lowest price one will encounter for a Bordeaux wine, particularly if there is a great demand for the wines because the vintage is reputed to be excellent or outstanding. Prices will always vary for Bordeaux, as well as for other imported wines, according to the quality of the vintage, the exchange rate of the dollar against foreign currencies, and the time of purchase by the retailer, wholesaler, or importer. Was the Bordeaux wine purchased at a low futures price in the spring following the vintage, or was the wine purchased when it had peaked in price and was very expensive?

Another consideration in pricing is that, in many states, wine retailers can directly import the wines they sell and can thereby bypass middlemen, such as wholesalers, who usually tack on a 25% markup of their own. The bottom line in all of this is that in any given vintage for Bordeaux, or for any imported wine, there is no standard suggested retail price. Prices can differ by as much as 50% for the same wine in the same city. However, in cities where there is tremendous competition among wine shops, the markup for wines can be as low as 10% or even 5%; this is significantly less than the normal 50%-55% markup. In cities where there is little competition, the prices charged are often full retail price. I always recommend that consumers pay close attention to the wine shop advertisements in major newspapers and wine publications. For example, The New York Times's Living Section and The Wine Spectator are filled with wine advertisements that are a barometer for the market price of a given wine. Readers should remember, however, that prices differ considerably, not only within the same state, but also within the same city. The approximate price range that is used reflects the suggested retail price that includes a 40%-60% markup by the retailer in most major metropolitan areas. Therefore, in many states in the Midwest and in other less populated areas where there is little competition among wine merchants, the price may be higher. In major competitive marketplaces where there are frequent discount wars, such as Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, prices are often lower. The key for you as the reader and consumer is to follow the advertisem ents in a major newspaper and to shop around. Most major wine retailers feature sales in the fall and spring; summer is the slow season and generally the most expensive time to buy wine.

Following is the price guide I have used throughout the book.

A: Inexpensive -- less than $10
B: Moderate -- between $10 and $20
C: Expensive -- between $20 and $35
D: Very expensive -- between $35 and $60
E: Luxury -- between $60 and $100
EE: Super luxury -- between $100 and $175
EEE: Over $175

"A man must serve his time to every trade save censure -- critics all are ready made." Thus wrote Lord Byron.

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook, and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started when, in late summer 1978, I sent out a complimentary issue of what was then called the Baltimore/Washington Wine Advocate.

There were two principal forces that shaped my view of a wine critic's responsibilities. I was then, and remain today, significantly influenced by the independent philosophy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Moreover, I was marked by the indelible impression left by my law school professors, who pounded into their students' heads in the post-Watergate era a broad definition of conflict of interest. These two forces have governed the purpose and soul of my newsletter, The Wine Advocate, and my books.

In short, the role of the critic is to render judgments that are reliable. They should be based on extensive experience and on a trained sensibility for whatever is being reviewed. In practical terms, this means the critic should be blessed with the following attributes:

Independence It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way. Gratuitous hospitality in the form of airline tickets, hotel rooms, guest houses, etc., should never be accepted either abroad or in this country. And what about wine samples? I purchase over 75% of the wines I taste, and while I have never requested samples, I do not feel it is unethical to accept unsolicited samples that are shipped to my office. Many wine writers claim that these favors do not influence their opinions. Yet how many people in any profession are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them? Irrefutably, the target audience is the wine consumer, not the wine trade. While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate often, not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to effectively pursue this independence, it is imperative to keep one's distance from the trade. While this can be misinterpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.

Courage Courage manifests itself in what I call the "democratic tasting." Judgments ought to be made solely on the basis of the product in the bottle, and not on the pedigree, the price, the rarity, or one's like or dislike of the producer. The wine critic who is totally candid may be considered dangerous by the trade, but an uncensored, independent point of view is of paramount importance to the consumer. A judgment of wine quality must be based on what is in the bottle. This is wine criticism at its purest, most meaningful. In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petit château Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite-Rothschild or Latour. Overachievers should be spotted, praised, and their names highlighted and shared with the consuming public. Underachievers should be singled out for criticism and called to account for their mediocrities. Few friends from the wine commerce are likely to be earned for such outspoken and irreverent commentary, but wine buyers are entitled to such information. When a critic bases his or her judgment on what others think, or on the wine's pedigree, price, or perceived potential, then wine criticism is nothing more than a sham.

Experience It is essential to taste extensively across the field of play to identify the benchmark reference points and to learn winemaking standards throughout the world. This is the most time-consuming and expensive aspect of wine criticism, as well as the most fulfilling for the critic; yet it is rarely followed. Lamentably, what so often transpires is that a tasting of ten or twelve wines from a specific region or vintage will be held. The writer will then issue a definitive judgment on the vintage based on a microscopic proportion of the wines. This is as irresponsible as it is appalling. It is essential for a wine critic to taste as comprehensibly as is physically possible. This means tasting every significant wine produced in a region or vintage before reaching qualitative conclusions. Wine criticism, if it is ever to be regarded as a serious profession, must be a full-time endeavor, not the habitat of part-timers dabbling in a field that is so complex and requires such time commitment. Wine and vintages, like everything in life, cannot be reduced to black and white answers.

It is also essential to establish memory reference points for the world's greatest wines. There is such a diversity of wine and such a multitude of styles that this may seem impossible. But tasting as many wines as one possibly can in each vintage, and from all of the classic wine regions, helps one memorize benchmark characteristics that form the basis for making comparative judgments between vintages, wine producers, and wine regions.

Individual Accountability While I have never found anyone's wine-tasting notes compelling reading, notes issued by consensus of a committee are the most insipid, and often the most misleading. Judgments by committees tend to sum up a group's personal preferences. But how do they take into consideration the possibility that each individual may have reached his or her decision using totally different criteria? Did one judge adore the wine because of its typicity while another decried it for such, or was the wine's individuality given greater merit? It is impossible to know. That is never in doubt when an individual authors a tasting critique.

Committees rarely recognize wines of great individuality. A look at the results of tasting competitions sadly reveals that well-made mediocrities garner the top prizes. The misleading consequence is that blandness is elevated to the status of being a virtue. Wines with great individuality and character will never win a committee tasting because at least one taster will find something objectionable about the wine.

I have always sensed that individual tasters, because they are unable to hide behind the collective voice of a committee, hold themselves to a greater degree of accountability. The opinion of a reasonably informed and comprehensive individual taster, despite the taster's prejudices and predilections, is always a far greater guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than the consensus of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure.

Emphasis on Pleasure and Value Too much wine writing focuses on glamour French wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and on California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. These are important, and they make up the backbone of most serious wine enthusiasts' cellars. But value and diversity in wine types must always be stressed. The unhealthy legacy of the English wine-writing establishment that a wine has to taste bad young to be great old should be thrown out. Wines that taste great young, such as Chenin Blanc, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, Merlot, and Zinfandel, are no less serious or compelling because they must be drunk within a few years rather than be cellared for a decade or more before consumption. Wine is, in the final analysis, a beverage of pleasure, and intelligent wine criticism should be a blend of both hedonistic and analytical schools of thought -- to the exclusion of neither.

The Focus on Qualitative Issues It is an inescapable fact that too many of the world's renowned growers/producers have intentionally permitted production levels to soar to such extraordinary heights that many wines' personalities, concentration, and character are in jeopardy. While there remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject significant proportions of their harvest to ensure that only the finest-quality wine is sold under their name, they are dwindling in number. For much of the last decade production yields throughout the world have broken records, almost with each new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. The argument that more carefully and competently managed vineyards result in larger crops is nonsense.

In addition to high yields, advances in technology have provided the savoir faire to produce more correct wines, but the abuse of practices such as acidification and excessive fining and filtration have compromised the final product. These problems are rarely and inadequately addressed by the wine-writing community. Wine prices have never been higher, but is the consumer always getting a better wine? The wine writer has the responsibility to give broad qualitative issues high priority.

Candor No one argues with the incontestable fact that tasting is a subjective endeavor. The measure of an effective wine critic should be his or her timely and useful rendering of an intelligent laundry list of good examples of different styles of winemaking in various price categories. Articulating in an understandable fashion why the critic finds the wines enthralling or objectionable is manifestly important both to the reader and to the producer. The critic must always seek to educate, to provide meaningful guidelines, never failing to emphasize that there can never be any substitute for the consumer's palate, nor any better education than the reader's own tasting of the wine. The critic has the advantage of having access to the world's wine production and must try to minimize bias. Yet the critic should always share with the reader his or her reasoning for bad reviews. For example, I will never be able to overcome my dislike for vegetal-tasting New World Cabernets, overtly herbaceous red Loire Valley wines, or excessively acidified New World whites.

My ultimate goal in writing about wines is to seek out the world's greatest wines and greatest wine values. But in the process of ferreting out those wines, I feel the critic should never shy away from criticizing those producers whose wines are found lacking. Given the fact that the consumer is the true taster of record, the "taste no evil" approach to wine writing serves no one but the wine trade. Constructive and competent criticism has proven that it can benefit producers as well as consumers, since it forces underachievers to improve the quality of their fare, and by lauding overachievers, it encourages them to maintain high standards to the benefit of all who enjoy and appreciate good wine.

About Wine

On the surface, having made your choices in advance, buying wine seems simple enough -- you go to your favorite wine merchant and purchase a few bottles. However, there are some subtleties to buying wine that one must be aware of in order to ensure that the wine is in healthy condition and is unspoiled.

To begin with, take a look at the bottle of wine you are about to buy. Wine abuse is revealed by the condition of the bottle in your hand. First of all, if the cork has popped above the rim of the bottle and is pushed out on the lead or plastic capsule that covers the top of the bottle, then look for another bottle. Wines that have been exposed to very high temperatures expand in the bottle, thereby putting pressure on the cork and pushing it upward against the capsule. And it is the highest-quality wines, those that have not been overly filtered or pasteurized, that are the most vulnerable to the ill effects of abusive transportation or storage. A wine that has been frozen in transit or storage will likewise push the cork out, and while the freezing of a wine is less damaging than the heating of it, both are hazardous to its health. Any cork that is protruding above the rim of the bottle is a bad sign, and the bottle should be returned to the shelf and never, ever purchased.

Finally, there is a sign indicating poor storage conditions that can generally be determined only after the wine has been decanted, though sometimes it can be spotted in the neck of the bottle. Wines that have been exposed to very high temperatures, particularly deep, rich, intense, red wines, will often form a heavy coat or film of coloring material on the inside of the glass. With a Bordeaux that is less than 3 years old, a coating such as this generally indicates that the wine has been subjected to very high temperatures and has undoubtedly been damaged. However, one must be careful here, because this type of sediment does not always indicate a poor bottle of wine; vintage port regularly throws it as do the huge, rich Rhône and Piedmontese wines.

On the other hand, there are two conditions consumers frequently think are signs of a flawed wine when nothing could be further from the truth. Many consumers return bottles of wine for the very worst reason -- because of a small deposit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. Ironically, this is actually the healthiest sign one could find in most bottles of wine. Keep in mind, however, that white wines rarely throw a deposit, and it is rare to see a deposit in young wines under 2 to 3 years of age. The tiny particles of sandlike sediment that precipitate to the bottom of a bottle simply indicate that the wine has been naturally made and has not been subjected to a flavor- and character-eviscerating traumatic filtration. Such wine is truly alive and is usually full of all its natural flavors.

Another reason that wine consumers erroneously return bottles to retailers is because of the presence of small crystals called tartrate precipitates. These crystals are found in all types of wines but appear most commonly in white wines from Germany and Alsace. They often shine and resemble little slivers of cut glass, but in fact they are simply indicative of a wine that somewhere along its journey was exposed to temperatures below 40°F in shipment, and the cold has caused some tartaric crystals to precipitate. These are harmless, tasteless, and totally natural in many bottles of wine. They have no effect on the quality and they normally signify that the wine has not been subjected to an abusive, sometimes damaging, cold stabilization treatment by the winery for cosmetic purposes only.

Fortunately, most of the better wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers are more cognizant today of the damage that can be done by shipping wine in unrefrigerated containers, especially in the middle of summer. Far too many wines are still tragically damaged by poor transportation and storage, and it is the consumer who suffers. A general rule is that heat is much more damaging to fine wines than cold. Remember, there are still plenty of wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers who treat wine no differently than they treat beer or liquor, and the wine buyer must therefore be armed with a bit of knowledge before he or she buys a bottle of wine.

Wine has to be stored properly if it is to be served in a healthy condition. All wine enthusiasts know that subterranean wine cellars that are vibration-free, dark, damp, and kept at a constant 55°F are considered perfect for wine. Few of us, however, have our own castles and such perfect accommodations for our beloved wines. While such conditions are ideal, most wines will thrive and develop well under other circumstances. I have tasted many old Bordeaux wines from closets and basements that have reached 65-70 degrees F in summer, and the wines have been perfect. In cellaring wine keep the following rules in mind and you will not be disappointed with a wine that has gone over the hill prematurely.

First of all, in order to safely cellar wines for 10 years or more, keep them at 65°F, perhaps 68 but no higher. If the temperature rises to 70°F, be prepared to drink your red wines within 10 years. Under no circumstances should you store and cellar white wines more than 1 to 2 years at temperatures above 70°F. Wines kept at temperatures above 65°F will age faster, but unless the temperature exceeds 70°F, they will not age badly. If you can somehow get the temperature down to 65°F or below, you will never have to worry about the condition of your wines. At 55°F, the ideal temperature according to the textbooks, the wines actually evolve so slowly that your grandchildren are likely to benefit from the wines more than you. Constancy in temperature is most essential, and any changes in temperature should occur slowly. White wines are much more fragile and much more sensitive to temperature changes and higher temperatures than red wines. Therefore, if you do not have ideal storage conditions, buy only enough white wine to drink over a 1- to 2-year period.

Second, be sure that your storage area is odor-free, vibration-free, and dark. A humidity level above 50% is essential; 70%-75% is ideal. The problem with a humidity level over 75% is that the labels become moldy and deteriorate. A humidity level below 40% will keep the labels in great shape but will cause the corks to become very dry, possibly shortening the potential life expectancy of your wine. Low humidity is believed to be nearly as great a threat to a wine's health as high temperature. There has been no research to prove this, and limited studies I have done are far from conclusive.

Third, always bear in mind that wines from vintages that have produced powerful, rich, concentrated, full-bodied wines travel and age significantly better than wines from vintages that have produced lighter-weight wines. It is often traumatic for a fragile, lighter-styled wine from either Europe or California to be transported transatlantic or cross country, whereas the richer, more intense, bigger wines from the better vintages seem much less travel-worn after their journey.

Fourth, in buying and storing wine I always recommend buying a wine as soon as it appears on the market, assuming of course that you have tasted the wine and like it. The reason for this is that there are still too many American wine merchants, importers, wholesalers, and distributors who are indifferent to the way wine is stored. This attitude still persists, though things have improved dramatically over the last decade. The important thing for you as a consumer to remember, after inspecting the bottle to make sure it appears healthy, is to stock up on wines as quickly as they come on the market and to approach older vintages with a great deal of caution and hesitation unless you have absolute faith in the merchant from whom you have bought the wine. Furthermore, you should be confident that your merchant will stand behind the wine in the event it is flawed from poor storage.

The majority of wines made in the world taste best when they are just released or consumed within 1 to 2 years of the vintage. Many wines are drinkable at 5, 10, or even 15 years of age, but based on my experience only a small percentage are more interesting and more enjoyable after extended cellaring than they were when originally released.

It is important to have a working definition of what the aging of wine actually means. I define the process as nothing more than the ability of a wine, over time, (1) to develop more pleasurable nuances, (2) to expand and soften in texture and, in the case of red wines, to exhibit an additional melting away of tannins, and (3) to reveal a more compelling aromatic and flavor profile. In short, the wine must deliver additional complexity, increased pleasure, and more interest as an older wine than it did when released. Only such a performance can justify the purchase of a wine in its youth for the purpose of cellaring it for future drinking. Unfortunately, just a tiny percentage of the world's wines fall within this definition of aging.

It is fundamentally false to believe that a wine cannot be serious or profound if it is drunk young. In France, the finest Bordeaux, the northern Rhône Valley wines (particularly Hermitage and Côte Rôtie), a few red burgundies, some Châteauneuf du Papes, and, surprisingly, many of the sweet white Alsace wines and sweet Loire Valley wines do indeed age well and are frequently much more enjoyable and complex when drunk 5, 10, or even 15 years after the vintage. But virtually all other French wines, from Champagne to Côtes du Rhône, from Beaujolais to the petits châteaux of Bordeaux, to even the vast majority of red and white burgundies, are better in their youth.

The French have long adhered to the wine-drinking strategy that younger is better. Centuries of wine consumption, not to mention gastronomic indulgences, have taught the French something that Americans and Englishmen have failed to grasp: Most wines are more pleasurable and friendly when young than old.

The French know that the aging and cellaring of wines, even those of high pedigree, are often fraught with more disappointments than successes. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in French restaurants, especially in Bordeaux, the region that boasts what the world considers the longest-lived dry red wines. A top vintage of Bordeaux can last for 20 to 30 years, sometimes 40 or more, but look at the wine lists of Bordeaux's best restaurants. The great 1982s have long disappeared down the throats of French men and women. Even the tannic, young, yet potentially very promising 1996 Medocs, which Americans have squirreled away for drinking in the next century, are now hard to find. Why? Because they have already been consumed. Many of the deluxe restaurants, particularly in Paris, have wine lists of historic vintages, but these are largely for rich tourists.

This phenomenon is not limited to France. Similar drinking habits prevail in the restaurants of Florence, Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona. Italians and Spaniards also enjoy their wines young. This is not to suggest that Italy does not make some wines that improve in the bottle. In Tuscany, for example, a handful of Chiantis and some of the finest new-breed Tuscan red wines (e.g., the famed Cabernet Sauvignon called Sassicaia) will handsomely repay extended cellaring, but most never get the opportunity. In the Piedmont section of northern Italy, no one will deny that a fine Barbaresco or Barolo improves after a decade in the bottle. But by and large, all of Italy's other wines are meant to be drunk young, a fact that Italians have long known and that you should observe as well.

With respect to Spain, there is little difference, although a Spaniard's tastes differ considerably from the average Italian's or Frenchman's. In Spain, the intense aroma of smoky vanillin new oak is prized. As a result, the top Spanish wine producers from the most renowned wine region, Rioja, and other viticultural regions as well tend to age their wines in oak barrels so that they can develop this particular aroma. Additionally, unlike French and Italian wine producers, or even their New World counterparts, Spanish wineries are reluctant to release their wines until they are fully mature. As a result, most Spanish wines are smooth and mellow when they arrive on the market. While they may keep for 5 to 10 years, they generally do not improve. This is especially true of Spain's most expensive wines, the Reservas and Gran Reservas from Rioja, which are usually not released until 5 to 8 years after the vintage. The one exception may be the wine long considered Spain's greatest red, the Vega Sicilia Unico. This powerful wine, frequently released when it is already 10 or 20 years old (the immortal 1970 was released in 1995), does appear capable of lasting for 20-35 years after its release. Yet I wonder how much it improves.

All of this impacts on the following notion: Unlike any other wine consumers in the world, most American wine enthusiasts, as well as many English consumers, fret over the perfect moment to drink a wine. There is none. Most modern-day vintages, even age-worthy Bordeaux or Rhône Valley wines, can be drunk when released. Some of them will improve, but many will not. If you enjoy drinking a 1990 Bordeaux now, then who could be so foolish as to suggest that you are making an error because the wine will be appreciably better in 5 to 10 years?

In America and Australia, winemaking is much more dominated by technology. While a handful of producers still adhere to the artisanal, traditional way of making wine as done in Europe, most treat the vineyard as a factory and the winemaking as a manufacturing process. As a result, such techniques as excessive acidification, brutally traumatic centrifugation, and eviscerating sterile filtration are routinely utilized to produce squeaky clean, simplistic, sediment-free, spit-polished, totally stable yet innocuous wines with statistical profiles that fit neatly within strict technical parameters. Yet it is these same techniques that denude wines of their flavors, aromas, and pleasure-giving qualities. Moreover, they reveal a profound lack of respect for the vineyard, the varietal, the vintage, and the wine consumer, who, after all, is seeking pleasure, not blandness.

In both Australia and California, the alarming tendency of most Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays to collapse in the bottle and to drop their fruit within 2 to 3 years of the vintage has been well documented. Yet some of California's and Australia's most vocal advocates continue to advise wine consumers to cellar and invest (a deplorable word when it comes to wine) in Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. It is a stupid policy. If the aging of wine is indeed the ability of a wine to become more interesting and pleasurable with time, then the rule of thumb to be applied to American and Australian Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays is that they must be drunk within 12 months of their release unless the consumer has an eccentric fetish for fruitless wines with blistering acidity and scorchingly noticeable alcohol levels. Examples of producers whose Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs can last for 5 to 10 years and improve during that period can be found, but they are distressingly few.

With respect to red wines, a slightly different picture emerges. Take, for example, the increasingly fashionable wines made from the Pinot Noir grape. No one doubts the immense progress made in both California and Oregon in turning out fragrant, supple Pinot Noirs that are delicious upon release. But I do not know of any American producer who is making Pinot Noir that can actually improve beyond 10 to 12 years in the bottle. Under no circumstances is this a criticism.

Even in Burgundy there are probably no more than a dozen producers who make their wines in such a manner that they improve and last for more than a decade. Many of these wines can withstand the test of time in the sense of being survivors, but they are far less interesting and pleasurable at age 10 than they were at 2 or 3 years old. Of course the producers and retailers who specialize in these wines will argue otherwise, but they are in the business of selling. Do not be bamboozled by the public relations arm of the wine industry or the fallacious notion that red wines all improve with age. If you enjoy them young, and most likely you will, then buy only the quantities needed for near-term consumption.

America's most famous dry red wine, however, is not Pinot Noir but Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly that grown in California and to a lesser extent in Washington State. The idea that most California Cabernet Sauvignons improve in the bottle is a myth. Nonetheless, the belief that all California Cabernet Sauvignons are incapable of lasting in the bottle is equally unfounded. Today no one would be foolish enough to argue that the best California Cabernets cannot tolerate 15 or 20, even 25 or 30 years of cellaring.

I frequently have the opportunity to taste 20- to 30-year-old California Cabernet Sauvignons, and they are delicious. But have they significantly improved because of the aging process? A few of them have, though most still tend to be relatively grapey, somewhat monolithic, earthy, and tannic at age 20. Has the consumer's patience in cellaring these wines for all those years justified both the expense and the wait? Lamentably, the answer will usually be no. Most of these wines are no more complex or mellow than they were when young. Because these wines will not crack up and fall apart, there is little risk associated with stashing the best of them away, but I am afraid the consumer who patiently waits for the proverbial "miracle in the bottle" will find that wine cellaring can all too frequently be an expensive exercise in futility.

If you think it over, the most important issue is why so many of today's wines exhibit scant improvement in the aging process. While most have always been meant to be drunk when young, I am convinced that much of the current winemaking philosophy has led to numerous compromises in the winemaking process. The advent of micropore sterile filters, so much in evidence at every modern winery, may admirably stabilize a wine, but, regrettably, these filters also destroy the potential of a wine to develop a complex aromatic profile. When they are utilized by wine producers who routinely fertilize their vineyards excessively, thus overcropping, the results are wines that reveal an appalling lack of bouquet and flavor.

The prevailing winemaking obsession is to stabilize wine so it can be shipped to the far corners of the world 12 months a year, stand upright in overheated stores indefinitely, and never change or spoil if exposed to extremes of heat and cold or unfriendly storage conditions. For all intents and purposes, the wine is no longer alive. This is fine, even essential, for inexpensive jug wines, but for the fine-wine market, where consumers are asked to pay $30 or more for a bottle of wine, it is a winemaking tragedy. These stabilization and production techniques thus impact on the aging of wine because they preclude the development of the wine's ability to evolve and to become a more complex, tasty, profound, and enjoyable beverage.

There are really no secrets for proper wine service -- all one needs is a good corkscrew, clean, odor-free glasses, a sense of order as to how wines should be served, and whether a wine needs to be aired or allowed to breathe. The major mistakes that most Americans, as well as most restaurants, make are 1) fine white wines are served entirely too cold, 2) fine red wines are served entirely too warm, and 3) too little attention is given to the glass into which the wine is poured. (It might contain a soapy residue or stale aromas picked up in a closed china closet or cardboard box.) All of these things can do much more to damage the impact of a fine wine and its subtle aromas than you might imagine. Most people tend to think that the wine must be opened and allowed to "breathe" well in advance of serving. Some even think a wine must be decanted, a rather elaborate procedure, but essential only if sediment is present in the bottle and the wine is to be poured carefully off. With respect to breathing or airing wine, I am not sure anyone has all the answers. Certainly, no white wine requires any advance opening and pouring. With red wines, 15-30 minutes of being opened and poured into a clean, odor- and soap-free wine decanter is really all that is necessary. There are of course examples that can always be cited where the wine improves for 7 to 8 hours, but these are quite rare.

Although these topics seem to dominate much of the discussion in wine circles, a much more critical aspect for me is the appropriate temperature of the wine and of the glass in which it is to be served. The temperature of red wines is very important, and in America's generously heated dining rooms, temperatures are often 75°-80°F, higher than is good for fine red wines. A red wine served at such a temperature will taste flat and flabby, with its bouquet diffuse and unfocused. The alcohol content will also seem higher than it should be. The ideal temperature for most red wines is 62°-67°F; light red wine such as Beaujolais should be chilled to 55°F. For white wines, 55°-60°F is perfect, since most will show all their complexity and intensity at this temperature, whereas if they are chilled to below 45°F, it will be difficult to tell, for instance, whether the wine is a Riesling or a Chardonnay.

In addition, there is the all-important issue of the glasses in which the wine is to be served. An all-purpose, tulip-shaped glass of 8 to 12 ounces is a good start for just about any type of wine, but think the subject over carefully. If you go to the trouble and expense of finding and storing wine properly, shouldn't you treat the wine to a good glass? The finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes are those made by the Riedel Company of Austria. I have to admit that I was at first skeptical about these glasses. George Riedel, the head of his family's crystal business, claims to have created these glasses specifically to guide (by specially designed rims) the wine to a designated section of the palate. These rims, combined with the general shape of the glass, emphasize and promote the different flavors and aromas of a given varietal.

Over the last six months, I have tasted an assortment of wines in his glasses, including a Riesling glass, Chardonnay glass, Pinot Noir glass, and Cabernet Sauvignon glass, all part of his Sommelier Series. For comparative purposes, I then tasted the same wines in the Impitoyables glass, the INAO tasting glass, and the conventional tulip-shaped glass. The results were consistently in favor of the Riedel glasses. American Pinot Noirs and red burgundies performed far better in his huge 37-ounce, 91/2-inch-high Burgundy goblet (model number 400/16) than in the other stemware. Nor could any of the other glassware compete when I was drinking Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines from his Bordeaux goblet (model number 400/00), a 32-ounce, 101/2-inch-high, magnificently shaped glass. His Chardonnay glass was a less convincing performer, but I was astounded by how well the Riesling glass (model number 400/1), an 8-ounce glass that is 73/4 inches high, seemed to highlight the personality characteristics of Riesling.

George Riedel realizes that wine enthusiasts go to great lengths to buy wine in sound condition, to store it properly, and to serve it at the correct temperature. But how many connoisseurs invest enough time exploring the perfect glasses for their Pichon-Lalande, Méo-Camuzet, Clos Vougeot, or Maximin-Grunhaus Riesling Kabinett? His mission, he says, is to provide the "finest tools," enabling the taster to capture the full potential of a particular varietal. His glasses have convincingly proven his case time and time again in my tastings. I know of no finer tasting or drinking glasses than the Sommelier Series glasses from Riedel.

I have always found it amazing that most of my wine-loving friends tend to ignore the fact that top stemware is just as important as making the right choice in wine. When using the Riedel glasses, one must keep in mind that every one of these glasses has been engineered to enhance the best characteristic of a particular grape varietal. Riedel believes that regardless of the size of the glass, they work best when they are filled to no more than one-quarter of their capacity. If I were going to buy these glasses (the Sommelier Series tends to run $40-$70 a glass), I would unhesitatingly purchase both the Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses. They outperformed every other glass by a wide margin. The magnificent 37-ounce Burgundy glass, with a slightly flared lip, directs the flow of a burgundy to the tip and the center of the tongue, thus avoiding contact with the sides of the tongue, which deemphasizes the acidity, making the burgundy taste rounder and more supple. This is not just trade puffery on Riedel's part. I have done it enough times to realize these glasses do indeed control the flow, and by doing so, enhance the character of the wine. The large 32-ounce Bordeaux glass, which is nearly the same size as the Burgundy glass, is more conical, and the lip serves to direct the wine toward the tip of the tongue, where the taste sensors are more acutely aware of sweetness. This enhances the rich fruit in a Cabernet/Merlot-based wine before the wine spreads out to the sides and back of the palate, which pick up the more acidic, tannic elements. All of this may sound absurdly highbrow or esoteric, but the effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.

If the Sommelier Series sounds too expensive, Riedel does make less expensive lines that are machine-made rather than hand-blown. The most popular are the Vinum glasses, which sell for about $20 per glass. The Bordeaux Vinum glass is a personal favorite as well as a spectacular glass not only for Bordeaux but also for Rhône wines and white burgundies. There are also numerous other glasses designed for Nebbiolo-based wines, rosé wines, old white wines, and port wines, as well as a specially designed glass for sweet Sauternes-type wines.

For more complete information about prices and models, readers can get in touch with Riedel Crystal of America, P.O. Box 446, 24 Aero Road, Bohemia, NY 11716; telephone number (516) 567-7575. For residents of or visitors to New York City, Riedel has a showroom at 41 Madison Avenue (at Twenty-sixth Street).

Two other good sources for fine wineglasses include St. George Crystal in Jeannette, PA, at (412) 523-6501, and the all-purpose Cristal d'Arques Oenologist glass. I have found the latter glass to work exceptionally well with white wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Marsanne, and red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel, Gamay, Mourvèdre, and Sangiovese. For very fragrant red wines such as those produced from Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Grenache, this glass is acceptable, but I prefer other stemware. Designed by Dany Rolland, the gifted oenologist/wife/partner of Libourne's Michel Rolland, the dimensions are: height 8 inches (41/2 inches of that is the stem); circumference 10 inches at the base of the tulip-shaped bowl, narrowing to 8 inches at the rim; capacity 12 ounces, or a half bottle of wine. The cost is $10-$12, depending on the quantity purchased. For more information, readers should contact either Grand Cru Imports, Souderton, PA, at (215) 723-2033, or Portside, Inc., Alexandria, VA, at (703) 683-6220.

And last but not least, remember: No matter how clean the glass appears to be, be sure to rinse the glass or decanter with unchlorinated well or mineral water just before it is used. A decanter or wine glass left sitting for any time is a wonderful trap for room and kitchen odors that are undetectable until the wine is poured and they yield their off-putting smells. That, and soapy residues left in the glasses, has ruined more wines than any defective cork or, I suspect, poor storage from an importer, wholesaler, or retailer. I myself put considerable stress on one friendship simply because I continued to complain at every dinner party about the soapy glasses that interfered with the enjoyment of the wonderful Bordeaux wines being served.

The art of serving the right bottle of wine with a specific course or type of food has become one of the most overly legislated areas, all to the detriment of the enjoyment of both wine and food. Newspaper and magazine columns, even books, are filled with precise rules that seemingly make it a sin to be guilty of not having chosen the perfect wine to accompany the meal. The results have been predictable. Instead of enjoying a dining experience, most hosts and hostesses fret, usually needlessly, over their choice of which wine to serve with the meal.

The basic rules of the wine/food matchup game are not difficult to master. These are the tried-and-true, allegedly cardinal principles, such as young wines before old wines, dry wines before sweet wines, white wines before red wines, red wines with meat and white wines with fish. However, these general principles are filled with exceptions, and your choices are a great deal broader than you have been led to expect. One of France's greatest restaurant proprietors once told me that if people would simply pick their favorite wines to go along with their favorite dishes, they would be a great deal happier. Furthermore, he would be pleased not to have to witness so much nervous anxiety and apprehension on their faces. I'm not sure I can go that far, but given my gut feeling that there are more combinations of wine and food that work reasonably well than there are those that do not, let me share some of my basic observations about this whole field. There are several important questions you should consider:

Does the food offer simple or complex flavors? America's, and I suppose the wine world's, two favorite grapes, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, can produce majestic wines of exceptional complexity and flavor depth. As food wines, however, they are remarkably one-dimensional. As complex and rewarding as they can be, they work well only with dishes that have relatively straightforward and simple flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon marries beautifully with basic meat and potato dishes: filet mignon, lamb fillets, steaks, etc. Furthermore, as Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-based wines get older and more complex, they require simpler and simpler dishes to complement their complex flavors. Chardonnay goes beautifully with most fish courses, but when one adds different aromas and scents to a straightforward fish dish, either from grilling or from ingredients in an accompanying sauce, Chardonnays are often competitive rather than complementary wines to serve. The basic rule, then, is: simple, uncomplex wines with complex dishes, and complex wines with simple dishes.

What are the primary flavors in both the wine and food? A complementary wine choice can often be made if one knows what to expect from the primary flavors in the food to be eaten. The reason that creamy and buttery sauces with fish, lobster, even chicken or veal, work well with Chardonnay or white burgundies is because of the buttery, vanillin aromas in the fuller, richer, lustier styles of Chardonnay. On the other hand, a mixed salad with an herb dressing and pieces of grilled fish or shellfish beg for an herbaceous, smoky, Sauvignon Blanc or French Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé from the Loire Valley. For the same reason, a steak au poivre in a creamy brown sauce with its intense, pungent aromas and complex flavors requires a big, rich, peppery Rhône wine such as a Châteauneuf du Pape or Gigondas.

Is the texture and flavor intensity of the wine proportional to the texture and flavor intensity of the food? Did you ever wonder why fresh, briny, sea-scented oysters that are light and zesty taste so good with a Muscadet from France or a lighter-styled California Sauvignon Blanc or Italian Pinot Grigio? It is because these wines have the same weight and light texture as the oysters. Why is it that the smoky, sweet, oaky, tangy flavors of a grilled steak or loin of lamb work best with a Zinfandel or Rhône Valley red wine? First, the full-bodied, supple, chewy flavors of these wines complement a steak or loin of lamb cooked over a wood fire. Sauté the same steak or lamb in butter or bake it in the oven and the flavors are less complex; then a well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon- or Merlot-based wine from California, Bordeaux, or Australia is required. Another poignant example of the importance of matching the texture and flavor intensity of the wine with the food is the type of fish you have chosen to eat. Salmon, lobster, shad, and bluefish have intense flavors and a fatty texture, and therefore require a similarly styled, lusty, oaky, buttery Chardonnay to complement them. On the other hand, trout, sole, turbot, and shrimp are leaner, more delicately flavored fish and therefore mandate lighter, less intense wines such as nonoaked examples of Chardonnay from France's Mâconnais region, or Italy's Friuli-Venezia-Guilia area. In addition, a lighter-styled Champagne or German Riesling (a dry Kabinett works ideally) goes extremely well with trout, sole, or turbot, but falls on its face if matched against salmon, shad, or lobster. One further example of texture and flavor matchups is the c lassic example of drinking a heavy, unctuous, rich, sweet Sauternes with foie gras. The extravagantly rich and flavorful foie gras cannot be served with any other type of wine, as it would overpower a dry red or white wine. The fact that both the Sauternes and the foie gras have intense, concentrated flavors and similar textures is the exact reason why this combination is so decadently delicious.

What is the style of wine produced in the vintage that you have chosen? Several of France's greatest chefs have told me they prefer off years of Bordeaux and Burgundy to great years, and have instructed their sommeliers to buy the wines for the restaurant accordingly. Can this be true? From the chef's perspective, the food should be the focal point of the meal, not the wine. They fear that a great vintage of Burgundy or Bordeaux with wines that are exceptionally rich, powerful, and concentrated not only takes attention away from their cuisine but also makes matching a wine with the food much more troublesome. Thus, chefs prefer a 1987 Bordeaux on the table with their food as opposed to a superconcentrated 1982 or 1990. For the same reasons, they prefer a 1989 red burgundy over a 1990. Thus, the great vintages, while being marvelous wines, are not always the best vintages to choose if the ultimate matchup with food is desired. Lighter-weight yet tasty wines from so-so years can complement delicate and understated cuisine considerably better than the great vintages, which should be reserved for very simple courses of food.

Is the food to be served in a sauce? Fifteen years ago when eating at Michel Guerard's restaurant in Eugénie Les Bains, I ordered a course where the fish was served in a red wine sauce. Guerard recommended a red Graves from Bordeaux, since the sauce was made from a reduction of fish stock and a red Graves. The combination was successful and opened my eyes for the first time to the possibilities of fish with red wine. Since then I have had tuna with a green peppercorn sauce with California Cabernet Sauvignon (the matchup was great) and salmon sautéed in a red wine sauce that did justice to a young vintage of red Bordeaux. A white wine with any of these courses would not have worked. For the very same reason I have enjoyed veal in a creamy morel sauce with a Tokay from Alsace. A corollary to this principle of letting the sauce dictate the type of wine you order is where the actual food is prepared with a specific type of wine. For example, Coq au Vin, an exquisite peasant dish, can be cooked and served in either a white wine or red wine sauce. I have found when I had Coq au Vin au Riesling, the choice of a dry Alsace Riesling to go with it is simply extraordinary. In Burgundy I have often had Coq au Vin in a red wine sauce consisting of a reduced burgundy wine and the choice of a red burgundy makes the dish even more special.

When you travel, do you drink locally produced wines with the local cuisine? It is no coincidence that the regional cuisines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, and Alsace in France, and Tuscany and Piedmont in Italy seem to enhance and complement the local wines. In fact, most restaurants in these areas rarely offer wines from outside the local region, thus mandating the drinking of the locally produced wines. One always wonders what came first, the cuisine or the wine? Certainly, America is beginning to develop its own regional cuisine, but except for California and the Pacific Northwest few areas promote the local wines as appropriate matchups with the local cuisine. For example, in my backyard a number of small wineries make an excellent white wine called Seyval Blanc that is the perfect foil for both the oysters and blue channel crabs from the Chesapeake Bay. Yet few restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area promote these local wines, which is a shame. Regional wines with regional foods should not only be a top priority when traveling in Europe but also in America's viticultural areas.

Have you learned the best and worst wine and food matchups? If this entire area of wine and food combinations still seems too cumbersome, then your best strategy is simply to learn some of the greatest combinations as well as some of the worst. I can also add a few pointers I have learned through my own experiences, usually bad ones. Certain wine and food relationships of contrasting flavors can be sublime. Perhaps the best example is a sweet, creamy textured Sauternes wine with a salty, aged stilton or roquefort cheese. The combination of having two opposite sets of flavors and textures is sensational in this particular instance. Another great combination is Alsace Gewurztraminers and Rieslings with ethnic cuisine such as Indian and Chinese. The juxtaposition of sweet and sour combinations in Oriental cuisine and the spiciness of both cuisines seems to work beautifully with these two types of wine from Alsace.

One of the great myths about wine and food matchups is that red wines work well with cheese. The truth of the matter is that they rarely ever work well with cheese. Most cheeses, especially favorite wine cheeses such as brie and double and triple creams have such a high fat content that most red wines suffer incredibly when drunk with them. If you want to shock your guests but also enjoy wine with cheese, it should not be a red wine you serve but rather a white wine made from the sauvignon blanc grape such as a Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé from France. The dynamic personalities of these two wines and their tangy, zesty acidity stand up well to virtually all types of cheese but they especially go well with fresh goat cheeses.

Another myth is that dessert wines go best with desserts. Most people seem to like champagne or a sweet riesling, sweet chenin blanc, or a Sauternes with dessert. Forgetting that chocolate-based desserts are always in conflict with any type of wine, I find dessert wines to be best served as the dessert or after the dessert. Whether it be cake, fruit tarts, ice cream, or candy, I've always enjoyed dessert wines more when they are the centerpiece of attention than when they are accompanying a sweet dessert.

If wine and food matchups still seem too complicated for you, remember that in the final analysis, a good wine served with a good dish to good company is always in good taste. A votre santé.

Over the last decade people have become much more sensitive to what they put in their bodies. The hazards of excessive smoking, fat consumption, and high blood pressure are taken seriously by increasing numbers of people, not just in America but in Europe as well. While this movement is to be applauded, an extremist group, labeled by observers as "neo-prohibitionists" or "new drys," have tried to exploit an individual's interest in good health by promoting the image that the consumption of any alcoholic beverage is an inherently dangerous abuse that undermines society and family. These extremist groups do not care about moderation; they want the total elimination of wine (one of alcohol's evil spirits) from the marketplace. To do so, they have misrepresented wine and consistently ignored specific data that demonstrates that moderate wine drinking is more beneficial than harmful to individuals. Unfortunately, the law prohibits the wine industry from promoting the proven health benefits of wine.

Wine is the most natural of all beverages, but it is true that additives can be included in a wine (the neo-prohibitionists are taking aim at these as being potentially lethal). Following are those items that can be added to wine.

Acids Most cool-climate vineyards never have the need to add acidity to wine, but in California and Australia acidity is often added to give balance to the wines, as grapes from these hot-climate areas often lack enough natural acidity. Most serious wineries add tartaric acidity, which is the same type of acidity found naturally in wine. Less quality oriented wineries dump in pure citric acid that results in the wine's tasting like a lemon/lime sorbet.

Clarification Agents A list of items that are dumped into wine to cause suspended particles to coagulate includes morbid names such as dried ox blood, isinglass, casein (milk powder), kaolin (clay), bentonite (powdered clay), and the traditional egg whites. These fining agents are designed to make the wine brilliant and particle free; they are harmless, and top wineries either don't use them or use them minimally.

Oak Many top-quality red and white wines spend most of their lives aging in oak barrels. It is expected that wine stored in wood will take on some of the toasty, smoky, vanillin flavors of wood. These aromas and flavors, if not overdone, add flavor complexity to a wine. Cheap wine can also be marginally enhanced by the addition of oak chips that provide a more aggressive, raw flavor of wood.

Sugar In most of the viticultural regions of Europe except for southern France, Portugal, and Spain, the law permits the addition of sugar to the fermenting grape juice in order to raise the alcohol levels. This practice, called chaptalization, is done in cool years where the grapes do not attain sufficient ripeness. It is never done in the hot climate of California or in most of Australia where low natural acidity, not low sugars, is the problem. Judicious chaptalization raises the alcohol level by 1%-2%.

Sulfates All wines must now carry a label indicating the wine contains sulfates. Sulfate (also referred to as SO2 or sulfur dioxide) is a preservative used to kill bacteria and microorganisms. It is sprayed on virtually all fresh vegetables and fruits, but a tiny percentage of the population is allergic to SO2, especially asthmatics. The fermentation of wine produces some sulfur dioxide naturally, but it is also added to oak barrels by burning a sulfur stick inside the barrel in order to kill any bacteria; it is added again at bottling to prevent the wine from oxidizing. Quality wines should never smell of sulfur (a burning match smell) because serious winemakers keep the sulfur level very low. Some wineries do not employ sulfates. When used properly, sulfates impart no smell or taste to the wine and, except for those who have a known allergy to them, are harmless to the general population. Used excessively, sulfates impart the aforementioned unpleasant smell and a prickly taste sensation. Obviously, people who are allergic to sulfates should not drink wine, just as people who are allergic to fish roe should not eat caviar.

Tannin Tannin occurs naturally in the skins and stems of grapes, and the content from the crushing of the grape skins and subsequent maceration of the skins and juice is usually more than adequate to provide sufficient natural tannin. Tannin gives a red wine grip and backbone, as well as acting as a preservative. However, on rare occasions tannin is added to a spineless wine.

Yeasts While many winemakers rely on the indigenous wild yeasts in the vineyard to start the fermentation, it is becoming more common to employ cultured yeasts for this procedure. There is no health hazard here, but the increasing reliance on the same type of yeast for wines from all over the world leads to wines with similar bouquets and flavors.

Organic wines, those that are produced without fungicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, with no additives or preservatives, continue to gain considerable consumer support. In principle, organic wines should be as excellent as nonorganic. Because most organic wine producers tend to do less manipulation and processing of their wines, the consumer receives a product that is far more natural than those wines that have been manufactured and processed to death.

There is tremendous potential for huge quantities of organic wines, particularly from those viticultural areas that enjoy copious quantities of sunshine and wind, the so-called Mediterranean climate. In France, the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Provence, and the Rhône Valley have the potential to produce organic wines if their proprietors desire. Much of California could do so as well. Parts of Australia and Italy also have weather conditions that encourage the possibility of developing organic vineyards.


The Growing International Standardization of Wine Styles

Although technology allows winemakers to produce better and better quality wine, the continuing obsession with technically perfect wines is unfortunately stripping wines of their identifiable and distinctive character. Whether it is the excessive filtration of wines or the excessive emulation of winemaking styles, it seems to be the tragedy of modern winemaking that it is now increasingly difficult to tell an Italian Chardonnay from one made in France or California or Australia. When the corporate winemakers of the world begin to make wines all in the same way, designing them to offend the least number of people, wine will no doubt lose its fascinating appeal and individualism to become no better than most brands of whiskey, gin, scotch, or vodka. One must not forget that the great appeal of wine is that it is a unique, distinctive, fascinating beverage and different every time one drinks it. Winemakers and the owners of wineries, particularly in America, must learn to take more risks so as to preserve the individual character of their wines, even at the risk that some consumers may find them bizarre or unusual. It is this distinctive quality of wine that will ensure its future.

Destroying the Joy of Wine by Excessive Acidification, Overzealous Fining, and Abrasive Filtration

Since the beginning of my career as a professional wine critic, I have tried to present a strong case against the excessive manipulation of wine. One look at the world's greatest producers and their wines will irrefutably reveal that the following characteristics are shared by all of them -- whether they be California, France, Italy, Spain, or Germany. 1) They are driven to preserve the integrity of the vineyard's character, the varietal's identity, and the vintage's personality. 2) They believe in low crop yields. 3) Weather permitting, they harvest only physiologically mature (versus analytically ripe) fruit. 4) Their winemaking and cellar techniques are simplistic in the sense that they are minimal interventionists, preferring to permit the wine to make itself. 5) While they are not opposed to fining or filtration if the wine is unstable or unclear, if the wine is made from healthy, ripe grapes, is stable and clear, they will absolutely refuse to strip it by excessive fining and filtration at bottling.

Producers who care only about making wine as fast as possible and collecting their accounts receivable quickly also have many things in common. While they turn out neutral, vapid, mediocre wines, they are also believers in huge crop yields, with considerable fertilization to promote massive crops, as large as the vineyard can render (6 or more tons per acre, compared to modest yields of 3 tons per acre). Their philosophy is that the vineyard is a manufacturing plant and cost efficiency dictates that production be maximized. They rush their wine into bottle as quickly as possible in order to get paid. They believe in processing wine, such as centrifuging it initially, then practicing multiple fining and filtration procedures, particularly a denuding sterile filtration. This guarantees that the wine is lifeless but stable, a goal where the ability to withstand temperature extremes and stand upright on a grocery store's shelf is given priority over giving the consumer a beverage of pleasure. These wineries harvest earlier than anybody else because they are unwilling to take any risk, delegating all questions regarding wine to their oenologists, who, they know, have as their objectives security and stability, which is at conflict with the consumer's goal of finding joy in wine.

The effect of excessive manipulation of wine, particularly overly aggressive fining and filtration, is dramatic. It destroys a wine's bouquet as well as its ability to express its terroir and varietal character. It also mutes the vintage's character. Fining and filtration can be lightly done, causing only minor damage, but most wines produced in the New World (California, Australia, and South America in particular), and most bulk wines produced in Europe are sterile-filtered. This procedure requires numerous pre-filtrations to get the wines clean enough to pass through a micropore membrane filter. This system of wine stability and clarification strips, eviscerates, and denudes a wine of much of its character.

Some wines can suffer such abuse with less damage. Thick, tannic, concentrated, Syrah- and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines may even survive these wine lobotomies, diminished in aromatic and flavor dimension but still alive. Wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are destroyed in the process.

Thanks to a new generation of producers, particularly in France, aided by a number of specialist importers from America, there has been a movement against unnecessary fining and filtration. One only has to look at the extraordinary success enjoyed by such American importers as Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher to realize how much consumer demand exists for producers to bottle a natural, unfiltered, uncompromised wine that is a faithful representation of its vineyard and vintage. Most serious wine consumers do not mind not being able to drink the last half ounce of wine because of sediment. They know this sediment means they are getting a flavorful, authentic, unprocessed wine that is much more representative than one that has been stripped at bottling.

Other small importers who have followed the leads of Lynch and Kacher include Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA; Neal Rosenthal Select Vineyards, New York, NY; Eric Solomon of European Cellars, New York, NY; Don Quattlebaum of New Castle Imports, Myrtle Beach, SC; Fran Kysela of Kysela Père et Fils of Winchester, VA; Martine Saunier of Martine's Wines, San Rafael, CA; North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, CA; Jorgé Ordonez, Dedham, MA; Leonardo LoCascio, Hohokus, NJ; Dan Phillips, Oxnard, CA; Ted Schrauth, West Australia; John Larchet, Australia; Jeffrey Davies, West Nyack, NY; and Alain Junguenet, Watchung, NJ; to name some of the best known. They often insist that their producers not filter those wines shipped to the United States, resulting in a richer, more age-worthy wine being sold in America than elsewhere in the world. Even some of our country's largest importers, most notably Kobrand, Inc., in New York City, are encouraging producers to move toward more gentle and natural bottling techniques.

I am certain there would have been an even more powerful movement to bottle wines naturally with minimal clarification if the world's wine press had examined the effect of excessive fining and filtration. I find it difficult to criticize many American wine writers since the vast majority of them are part-timers. Few have either the time or resources to taste the same wines before and after bottling. Yet I remain disappointed that many of our most influential writers and publications have remained strangely silent, particularly in view of the profound negative impact filtration can have on the quality of fine wine. The English wine writing corps, which includes many veteran, full-time wine writers, has an appalling record on this issue, especially in view of the fact that many of them make it a practice to taste before and after bottling. For those who care about the quality of wine and the preservation of the character of the vineyard, vintage, and varietal, the reluctance of so many writers to criticize the wine industry undermines the entire notion of wine appreciation.

Even a wine writer of the stature of Hugh Johnson comes out strongly on the side of processed, neutral wines that can be safely shipped 12 months of the year. Readers may want to consider Johnson's and his coauthor, James Halliday's, comments in their book, The Vintner's Art -- How Great Wines Are Made. Halliday is an Australian wine writer and winery owner and Hugh Johnson may be this century's most widely read wine author. In their book they chastise the American importer Kermit Lynch for his "romantic ideals" which they describe as "increasingly impractical." Johnson and Halliday assert that "The truth is that a good fifty percent of those artisan burgundies and Rhones are bacterial time bombs." Their plea for compromised and standardized wines is supported by the following observation: "The hard reality is that many restaurants and many consumers simply will not accept sediment." This may have been partially true in America 20 years ago, but today, the consumer not only wants but demands a natural wine. Moreover, the wine consumer understands that sediment in a bottle of fine wine is a healthy sign. The fact that both writers argue that modern-day winemaking and commercial necessity require that wines be shipped 12 months a year and be durable enough to withstand months on retailers' shelves in both cold and hot temperature conditions is highly debatable. America now has increasing numbers of responsible merchants, importers, and restaurant sommeliers who go to great lengths to guarantee the client a healthy bottle of wine that has not been abused. Astonishingly, Johnson and Halliday conclude that consumers cannot tell the difference as to whether a wine has been filtered or not! In summa rizing their position, they state, "...but leave the wine for 1, 2, or 3 months (one cannot tell how long the recovery process will take), and it is usually impossible to tell the filtered from the nonfiltered wine, provided the filtration at bottling was skillfully carried out." After 14 years of conducting such tastings, I find this statement not only unbelievable but also insupportable! Am I to conclude that all of the wonderful wines I have tasted from cask that were subsequently damaged by vigorous fining and filtration were bottled by incompetent people who did not know how to filter? Am I to think that the results of the extensive comparative tastings (usually blind) that I have done of the same wine, filtered versus unfiltered, were bogus? Are the enormous aromatic, flavor, textural, and qualitative differences that are the result of vigorous clarification techniques figments of my imagination? Astoundingly, the wine industry's reluctance to accept responsibility for preserving all that the best vineyards and vintages can achieve is excused rather than condemned.

If excessive fining and filtration are not bad enough, consider the overzealous addition of citric and tartaric acids employed by Australia and California oenologists to perk up their wines. You know the feeling -- you open a bottle of Australia or California Chardonnay and not only is there no bouquet (because it was sterile filtered) but tasting the wine is like biting into a fresh lemon or lime. It is not enjoyable. What you are experiencing is the result of the misguided philosophy among New World winemakers to add too much acidity as a cheap but fatal life insurance policy for their wines. Because they are unwilling to reduce their yields, because they are unwilling to assume any risk, and because they see winemaking as nothing more than a processing technique, acidity is generously added. It does serve as an antibacterial, antioxidant agent, thus helping to keep the wine fresh. But those who acidify the most are usually those who harvest appallingly high crop yields. Thus, there is little flavor to protect! After 6-12 months of bottle age, what little fruit is present fades, and the consumer is left with a skeleton of sharp, shrill acid levels, alcohol, wood (if utilized), and no fruit -- an utterly reprehensible way of making wine.

I do not object to the use of these techniques for bulk and jug wines, which the consumer is buying for value, or because of brand name recognition. But for any producer to sell a wine as a handcrafted, artisan product at $20 or more a bottle, the adherence to such philosophies as excessive acidification, fining, and filtration is shameful. Anyone who tells you that excessive acidification, fining, and filtration does not damage a wine is either a fool or a liar.

The Inflated Wine Pricing of Restaurants

Given the vast sums of American discretionary income that is being spent eating at restaurants, a strong argument could be made that the cornerstone to increased wine consumption and awareness would be the consumption of wine at restaurants. However, most restaurants treat wine as a luxury item, marking it up an exorbitant 200%-500%, thereby effectively discouraging the consumption of wine. This practice of offering wines at huge markups also serves to reinforce the mistaken notion that wine is only for the elite and the superrich.

The wine industry does little about this practice, being content merely to see its wines placed on a restaurant's list. But the consumer should revolt and avoid those restaurants that charge exorbitant wine prices, no matter how sublime the cuisine. This is nothing more than legitimized mugging of the consumer.

Fortunately, things are slightly better today than they were a decade ago, as some restaurant owners are now regarding wine as an integral part of the meal and not merely as a device used to increase the bill.

Collectors versus Consumers

I have reluctantly come to believe that many of France's greatest wine treasures -- the first growths of Bordeaux, including the famous sweet nectar made at Château Yquem; Burgundy's most profound red wines from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; and virtually all of the wines from the tiny white wine appellation of Montrachet -- are never drunk, or should I say swallowed. Most of us who purchase or cellar wine do so on the theory that eventually every one of our splendid bottles will be swirled, sloshed, sniffed, sipped, and, yes, guzzled with friends. That, of course, is one of the joys of wine, and those of you who partake of this pleasure are true wine lovers. There are, however, other types of wine collectors -- the collector-investor, the collector-spitter, and even the nondrinking collector. Needless to say, these people are not avid consumers.

Several years ago I remember being deluged with telephone calls from a man wanting me to have dinner with him and tour his private cellar. After several months of resisting, I finally succumbed. A very prominent businessman, he had constructed an impressive cellar beneath his sprawling home. It was enormous and immaculately kept, with state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controls. I suspect it contained in excess of ten thousand bottles. While there were cases of such thoroughbreds as Pétrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and rare vintages of the great red burgundies such as Romanée-Conti and La Tache, to my astonishment there were also hundreds of cases of 10- and 15-year-old Beaujolais, Pouilly-Fuissé, Dolcetto, and California Chardonnays -- all wines that should have been drunk during their first 4 or 5 years of life. I diplomatically suggested that he should inventory his cellar as there seemed to be a number of wines that mandated immediate consumption.

About the time I spotted the fifth or sixth case of what was clearly 10-year-old Beaujolais vinegar, I began to doubt the sincerity of my host's enthusiasm for wine. These unthinkable doubts (I was much more naive then than I am now) were amplified at dinner. As we entered the sprawling kitchen and dining room complex, he proudly announced that neither he nor his wife actually drank wine, and then asked if I would care for a glass of mineral water, iced tea, or, if I preferred, a bottle of wine. On my sorrow-filled drive home that evening, I lamented the fact that I had not opted for the mineral water. For when I made the mistake of requesting wine with the meal, my host proceeded to grab a bottle of wine that one of his friends suggested should be consumed immediately. It was a brown-colored, utterly repugnant, senile Bordeaux from perhaps the worst vintage in the last 25 years, 1969. Furthermore, the château chosen was a notorious underachiever from the famous commune of Pauillac. Normally the wine he chose does not merit buying in a good vintage, much less a pathetic one. I shall never forget my host opening the bottle and saying, "Well, Bob, this wine sure smells good."

Regrettably, this Non-Drinking Collector continues to buy large quantities of wine, not for investment and obviously not for drinking. The local wine merchants tell me his type is not rare. To him, a collection of wine is like a collection of crystal, art, sculpture, or china, something to be admired, to be shown off, but never, ever to be consumed.

More ostentatious by far is the collector-spitter, who thrives on gigantic tastings where fifty, sixty, sometimes even seventy or eighty vintages of great wines, often from the same châteaux, can be "tasted." Important members of the wine press are invited (no charge, of course) in the hope that this wine happening will receive a major article in the New York or Los Angeles Times, and the collector's name will become recognized and revered in the land of winedom. These collector-spitters relish rubbing elbows with famous proprietors and telling their friends, "Oh, I'll be at Château Lafite-Rothschild next week to taste all of the château's wines between 1870 and 1987. Sorry you can't be there." I have, I confess, participated in several of these events, and have learned from the exercise of trying to understand them that their primary purpose is to feed the sponsor's enormous ego, and often the château's ego as well.

I am not against academic tastings where a limited number of serious wine enthusiasts sit down to taste twenty or thirty different wines (usually young ones), because that is a manageable number that both neophytes and connoisseurs can generally grasp. But to taste sixty or more rare and monumental vintages at an 8- or 12-hour tasting marathon is carrying excess to its extreme. Most simply, what seems to happen at these tastings is that much of the world's greatest, rarest, and most expensive wines are spit out. No wine taster I have ever met could conceivably remain sober, even if only the greatest wines were swallowed. I can assure you, there is only remorse in spitting out 1929 or 1945 Mouton-Rothschild.

Other recollections of these events have also long troubled me. I vividly remember one tasting held at a very famous restaurant in Los Angeles where a number of compelling bottles from one of France's greatest estates were opened. Many of the wines were exhilarating. Yet, whether it was the otherworldly 1961 or opulent 1947, the reactions I saw on the faces of those forty or so people, who had each paid several thousand dollars to attend, made me wonder whether it was fifty different vintages of France's greatest wines we were tasting or fifty bottles of Pepto-Bismol. Fortunately, the organizer did appear to enjoy the gathering and appreciate the wines, but among the guests I never once saw a smile, or any enthusiasm or happiness in the course of this extraordinary 12-hour tasting.

I remember another marathon tasting held in France by one of Europe's leading collector-spitters, which lasted all day and much of the night. There were more than ninety legendary wines served, and midway through the afternoon I was reasonably certain there was not a sober individual remaining except for the chef and his staff. By the time the magnum of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was served (one of the century's greatest wines), I do not think there was a guest left who was competent enough to know whether he was drinking claret or Beaujolais, myself included.

I have also noticed at these tastings that many collector-spitters did not even know that a bottle was corked (had the smell of moldy cardboard and was defective) or that a bottle was oxidized and undrinkable, adding truth to the old saying that money does not always buy good taste. Of course, most of these tastings are media happenings designed to stroke the host's vanity. All too frequently they undermine the principle that wine is a beverage of pleasure, and that is my basic regret.

The third type of collector, the investor, is motivated by the possibility of reselling the wines for profit. Eventually, most or all of these wines return to the marketplace, and much of it wends its way into the hands of serious consumers who share it with their spouses or good friends. Of course they often must pay dearly for the privilege, but wine is not the only product that falls prey to such manipulation. I hate to think of wine being thought of primarily as an investment, but the world's finest wines do appreciate significantly in value and it would be foolish to ignore the fact that more and more shrewd investors are looking at wine as a way of making money.

Unspeakable Practices

It is a frightening thought, but I have no doubt that a sizeable percentage (between 10% and 25%) of the wines sold in America has been damaged because of exposure to extremes of heat. Smart consumers have long been aware of the signs of poor storage (see my comments on page 19).

One other sign indicating the wine has been poorly stored is the presence of seepage, or legs, down the rim of the bottle. This is the sometimes sticky, dry residue of a wine that has expanded, seeped around the cork, and dripped onto the rim. Cases of this are almost always due to excessively high temperatures in transit or storage. Few merchants take the trouble to wipe the legs off, and they can often be spotted on wines that are shipped during the heat of the summer, or brought into the United States through the Panama Canal in containers that are not air-conditioned. Consumers should avoid buying wines that show dried seepage legs originating under the capsule and trickling down the sides of the bottle.

You should also be alert for young wines (those less than 4 years old) that have more than one-half inch of air space, or ullage, between the cork and the liquid level in the bottle. Modern bottling operations generally fill bottles within one-eighth inch of the cork, so more than one-half inch of air space should arouse your suspicion.

The problem, of course, is that too few people in the wine trade take the necessary steps to assure that the wine is not ruined in shipment or storage. The wine business has become so commercial that wines, whether from California, Italy, or France, are shipped 12 months of the year, regardless of weather conditions. Traditionally, wines from Europe were shipped only in the spring or fall when the temperatures encountered in shipment would be moderate, assuming they were not shipped by way of the Panama Canal. The cost of renting an air-conditioned or heated container for shipping wines adds anywhere from twenty to forty cents to the wholesale cost of the bottle, but when buying wines that cost more than $200 a case, I doubt the purchaser would mind paying the extra premium knowing that the wine will not smell or taste cooked when opened.

Many importers claim to ship in reefers (the trade jargon for temperature-controlled containers), but only a handful actually do. America's largest importer of high-quality Bordeaux wine rarely, if ever, uses reefers, and claims to have had no problems with their shipments. Perhaps they would change their minds if they had witnessed the cases of 1986 Rausan-Ségla, 1986 Talbot, 1986 Gruaud-Larose, and 1986 Château Margaux that arrived in the Maryland-Washington, D.C. market with stained labels and pushed-out corks. Somewhere between Bordeaux and Washington, D.C. these wines had been exposed to torridly high temperatures. It may not have been the fault of the importer as the wine passed through a number of intermediaries before reaching its final destination. But pity the poor consumer who buys this wine, puts it in his cellar, and opens it 10 or 15 years in the future. Who will grieve for them?

The problem with temperature extremes is that the naturally made, minimally processed, hand-produced wines are the most vulnerable to this kind of abuse. Therefore, many importers, not wanting to assume any risks, have gone back to their suppliers and demanded "more stable" wines. Translated into real terms this means the wine trade prefers to ship not living wines but vapid, denuded wines that have been "stabilized," subjected to a manufacturing process, and either pasteurized or sterile filtered so they can be shipped 12 months a year. While their corks may still pop out if subjected to enough heat, their taste will not change, because for all intents and purposes these wines are already dead when they are put in the bottle. Unfortunately, only a small segment of the wine trade seems to care.

While there are some wine merchants, wholesalers, and importers who are cognizant of the damage that can be done when wines are not protected and who take great pride in representing hand-made, quality products, the majority of the wine trade continues to ignore the risks. They would prefer that the wine be denuded by pasteurization, cold stabilization, or a sterile filtration. Only then can they be shipped safely under any weather conditions.

Wine Producers' Greed

Are today's wine consumers being hoodwinked by the world's wine producers? Most growers and/or producers have intentionally permitted production yields to soar to such extraordinary levels that the concentration and character of their wines are in jeopardy. There remain a handful of fanatics who continue, at some financial sacrifice, to reject a significant proportion of their harvest so as to ensure that only the finest quality wine is sold under their name. However, they are dwindling in number. Fewer producers are prepared to go into the vineyard and cut bunches of grapes to reduce the yields. Fewer still are willing to cut back prudently on fertilizers. For much of the last decade production yields throughout the world continued to break records with each new vintage. The results are wines that increasingly lack character, concentration, and staying power. In Europe, the most flagrant abuses of overproduction occur in Germany and Burgundy, where yields today are three to almost five times what they were in the fifties. The argument that the vineyards are more carefully and competently managed and that this results in larger crops is misleading. Off the record, many a seriously committed wine producer will tell you that "the smaller the yield, the better the wine."

If one wonders why the Domaine Leroy's burgundies taste richer than those from other domaines, it is due not only to quality winemaking but also to the fact that their yields are one-third those of other Burgundy producers. If one asks why the best Châteauneuf du Papes are generally Rayas, Pegau, Bonneau, and Beaucastel, it is because their yields are one-half those of other producers of the appellation. The same assertion applies to J. J. Prum and Muller-Cattoir in Germany. Not surprisingly, they have conservative crop yields that produce one-third the amount of wine of their neighbors.

While I do not want to suggest there are no longer any great wines and that most of the wines now produced are no better than the plonk peasants drank in the nineteenth century, the point is that overfertilization, modern sprays which prevent rot, the development of highly prolific clonal selections, and the failure to keep production levels modest have all resulted in yields that may well be combining to destroy the reputations of many of the most famous wine regions of the world. Trying to find a flavorful Chardonnay from California today is not much easier than finding a concentrated red burgundy that can age gracefully beyond 10 years. The production yields of Chardonnay in California have often resulted in wines that have only a faint character of the grape and seem almost entirely dominated by acidity and/or the smell of oak barrels. What is appalling is that there is so little intrinsic flavor. Yet Chardonnays remain the most popular white wine in this country, so what incentive is there to lower yields?

Of course, if the public, encouraged by a noncritical, indifferent wine media, is willing to pay top dollar for mediocrity, then little is likely to change. On the other hand, if consumers start insisting that $15 or $20 should at the very minimum fetch a wine that provides far more pleasure, perhaps that message will gradually work its way back to the producers.

Wine Writers' Ethics and Competence

The problems just described have only occasionally been acknowledged by the wine media, which generally has a collective mindset of never having met a wine it doesn't like.

Wine writing in America has rarely been a profitable or promising full-time occupation. Historically, the most interesting work was always done by those people who sold wine. There's no doubting the influence or importance of the books written by Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker. But both men made their fortunes by selling rather than writing about wine, yet both managed to write about wine objectively, despite their ties to the trade.

There are probably not more than a dozen or so independent wine experts in this country who support themselves entirely by writing. Great Britain has long championed the cause of wine writers and looked upon them as true professionals. But even there, with all their experience and access to the finest European vineyards, most of the successful wine writers have been involved in the sale and distribution of wine. Can anyone name an English wine writer who criticized the performance of Lafite-Rothschild between 1961 and 1974, or Margaux between 1964 and 1977 (periods of time when the consumer was getting screwed)?

It is probably unrealistic to expect writers to develop a professional expertise with wine without access and support from the trade, but such support can compromise their findings. If they are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them. If the trips they make to vineyards are the result of the winemaker's largesse, they are unlikely to criticize what they have seen. If they are lodged at the châteaux and their trunks are filled with cases of wine (as, sadly, is often the case), can a consumer expect them to be critical, or even objective?

Putting aside the foolish notion that a wine writer is going to bite the hand that feeds him, there is the problem that many wine writers are lacking the global experience essential to properly evaluate wine. Consequently, what has emerged from such inexperience is a school of wine writing that is primarily trained to look at the wine's structure and acid levels, and it is this philosophy that is too frequently in evidence when judging wines. The level of pleasure that a wine provides, or is capable of providing in the future, would appear to be irrelevant. The results are wine evaluations that read as though one was measuring the industrial strength of different grades of cardboard rather than a beverage that many consider nature's greatest gift to mankind. Balance is everything in wine, and wines that taste too tart or tannic rarely ever age into flavorful, distinctive, charming beverages. While winemaking and wine technology are indeed better, and some of the most compelling wines ever made are being produced today, there are far too many mediocre wines sitting on the shelves that hardly deserve their high praise.

There are, however, some interesting trends. The growth of The Wine Spectator with its staff of full-time writers obligated to follow a strict code of conflict of interest, has resulted in better and more professional journalism. It also cannot be discounted that this flashy magazine appears twice a month. This is good news for the wine industry, frequently under siege by the anti-alcohol extremists. Some may protest the inflated ratings that The Wine Spectator's tasting panel tends to bestow, but tasting is, as we all should know, subjective. The only criticism some might have is that their wine evaluations are the result of a committee's vote. Wines of great individuality and character rarely win a committee tasting because there is going to be at least one taster who will find something objectionable about the wines. Therefore, tasting panels, where all grades are averaged, frequently appear to find wines of great individuality unusual. Can anyone name just one of the world's greatest red or white wines that is produced by the consensus of a committee? The wines that too often score the highest are those that are technically correct and designed to please the greatest number of people. Wouldn't most Americans prefer a hamburger from McDonald's than seared salmon served over a bed of lentils at New York City's famed Montrachet restaurant? To The Wine Spectator's credit, more of their tasting reports are authored by one or two people, not an anonymous, secretive committee. The results of the numerous California wine judgings support the same conclusion -- that many a truly great, individualistic, and original wine has no chance. The winners are too often fail-safe, technically correct, spit-polishe d, and clean examples of winemaking -- in short, wines for fans of Velveeta cheese, Muzak, and frozen dinners. The opinion of an individual taster, despite that taster's prejudices and predilections, if reasonably informed and comprehensive, is always a far greater guide to the ultimate quality of the wine than that of a committee. At least the reader knows where the individual stands, whereas with a committee, one is never quite sure.

Given the vitality of our nation's best wine guides, it is unlikely that wine writers will have less influence in the future. The thousands and thousands of wines that come on the market, many of them overpriced and vapid, require consumer-oriented reviews from the wine writing community. But until a greater degree of professionalism is attained, until more experience is evidenced by wine writers, until their misinformed emphasis on a wine's high acidity and structure is forever discredited, until most of the English wine media begin to understand and adhere to the basic rules of conflict of interest, until we all remember that this is only a beverage of pleasure to be seriously consumed but not taken too seriously, then and only then will the quality of wine writing and the wines we drink improve. Will all of this happen, or will we be reminded of these words of Marcel Proust:

We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us round to it, let us pass it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become.


What is a great wine? One of the most controversial subjects of the vinous world, isn't greatness in wine, much like a profound expression of art or music, something very personal and subjective? As much as I agree that the appreciation and enjoyment of art, music, or wine is indeed personal, high quality in wine, as in art and music, does tend to be subject to widespread agreement. Except for the occasional contrarian, greatness in art, music, or wine, if difficult to precisely define, enjoys a broad consensus. I would even argue that the appreciation of fine art and music is even more subjective than the enjoyment of fine wine. However, few art aficionados would disagree with the fact that Picasso, Rembrandt, Bacon, Matisse, Van Gogh, or Michelangelo were extraordinary artists. The same is true with music. Certainly some dissenters can be found regarding the merits of composers such as Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, or in the more modern era, such musicians/songwriters as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, but the majority opinion is that exceptional music emanated from them.

It is no different with wine. Many of the most legendary wines of this century -- 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1945 Haut-Brion, 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1947 Pétrus, 1961 Latour, 1982 Mouton-Rothschild, 1982 Le Pin, 1982 Léoville-Las Cases, 1989 Haut-Brion, 1990 Margaux, and 1990 Pétrus, to name some of the most renowned red Bordeaux -- are profoundly riveting wines, even though an occasional discordant view about them may surface. Tasting is indeed subjective, but like most of the finest things in life, there is considerable agreement as to what represents high quality, yet no one should feel forced to feign fondness for a work from Picasso or Beethoven, much less a bottle of 1961 Latour.

One issue about the world's finest wines that is subject to little controversy relates to how such wines originate. Frankly, there are no secrets to the origin and production of the world's finest wines. Great wines emanate from well-placed vineyards with microclimates favorable to the specific types of grapes grown. Profound wines, whether they are from France, Italy, Spain, California, or Australia, are also the product of conservative viticultural practices that emphasize low yields and physiologically rather than analytically ripe fruit. In nineteen years spent tasting over 200,000 wines, I have never tasted a superb wine that was made from underripe fruit. Does anyone enjoy the flavors present when biting into an underripe orange, peach, apricot, or cherry? Low yields and ripe fruit are essential for the production of extraordinary wines, yet it is amazing how many wineries never seem to understand this fundamental principle.

In addition to the commonsense approach of harvesting mature (ripe) fruit and discouraging, in a viticultural sense, the vine from overproducing, the philosophy employed by a winery in making wine is of paramount importance. Exceptional wines (whether they be red, white, or sparkling) emerge from a similar philosophy, which includes the following: 1) permit the vineyard's terroir (soil, microclimate, distinctiveness) to express itself, 2) allow the purity and characteristics of the grape varietal or blend of varietals to be faithfully represented in the wine, 3) produce a wine without distorting the personality and character of a particular vintage by excessive manipulation, 4) follow an uncompromising, noninterventionalistic winemaking philosophy that eschews the food-processing, industrial mindset of high-tech winemaking -- in short, give the wine a chance to make itself naturally without the human element attempting to sculpture or alter the wine's intrinsic character, 5) follow a policy of minimal handling, clarification, and treatment of the wine so that what is placed in the bottle represents as natural an expression of the vineyard, varietal, and vintage as is possible. In keeping with this overall philosophy, winemakers who attempt to reduce such traumatic clarification procedures as fining and filtration, while also lowering sulfur levels (which can dry out a wine's fruit, bleach color from a wine, and exacerbate the tannin's sharpness) produce wines with far more aromatics and flavors, as well as more enthralling textures. In short, these are wines that offer consumers their most compelling and rewarding drinking experiences.

Assuming there is a relatively broad consensus as to how the world's finest wines originate, what follows is my working definition of an exceptional wine. In short -- what are the characteristics of a great wine?

The ability to please both the palate and the intellect

Great wines offer satisfaction on both a hedonistic level of enjoyment as well as the ability to challenge and satiate the intellect. The world offers many delicious wines that are purely hedonistic but are not complex. The ability to satisfy the intellect is a more subjective issue. Wines that experts call "complex" are those that offer multiple dimensions in both their aromatic and flavor profiles and have more going for them than simply ripe fruit and a satisfying, pleasurable yet one-dimensional quality.

Classic Examples

1990 Dom Perignon Champagne ($125)
1994 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon Napa ($45)
1991 Guigal Côte Rôtie La Mouline ($125)
1995 Müller-Catoir Mussbacher Eselhart Rieslaner ($35)
1997 Turley Cellars Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard ($28)
1995 Clarendon Hills Old Vine Grenache Blewitt Vineyard ($26)

The ability to hold the taster's interest

I have often remarked that the greatest wines I have ever tasted could be easily recognized by bouquet alone. They are wines that could never be called monochromatic or simple. Profound wines hold the taster's interest, not only providing the initial tantalizing tease but also possessing a magnetic attraction because of their aromatic intensity and nuance-filled layers of flavors.

Classic Examples

1990 Chapoutier Hermitage Pavillon ($125)
1995 l'Évangile (Pomerol) ($75)
1990 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino ($65)
1997 Peter Michael Chardonnay Clos du Ciel ($35)
1990 Baumard Savennières Clos du Papillon ($30)
1994 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa ($65)

The ability of a wine to offer intense aromas and flavors without heaviness

An analogy can be made to eating in the finest restaurants. Extraordinary cooking is characterized by its purity, intensity, balance, texture, and compelling aromas and flavors. What separates exceptional cuisine from merely good cooking, as well as great wines from good wines, is their ability to offer extraordinary intensity of flavor without heaviness. It has been easy in the New World (especially in Australia and California) to produce wines that are oversized, bold, big, rich, but heavy. Europe's finest wineries, with many centuries more experience, have mastered the ability to obtain intense flavors without heaviness. However, New World viticultural areas (particularly in California) are quickly catching up, as evidenced by the succession of remarkable wines produced in Napa, Sonoma, and elsewhere in the Golden State during the decade of the nineties. Many of California's greatest wines of the nineties have sacrificed none of their power and richness, but no longer possess the rustic tannin and oafish feel on the palate that characterized so many of their predecessors of ten and twenty years ago.

Classic Examples

1996 Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne ($150)
1997 Arrowood Malbec Sonoma ($30)
1996 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano ($65)
1998 Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Vieilles Vignes ($50)
1995 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet ($135)
1995 Paul Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes ($30)

The ability of a wine to taste better with each sip

Most of the finest wines I have ever drunk were better with the last sip than the first, revealing more nuances and more complex aromas and flavors as the wine unfolded in the glass. Do readers ever wonder why the most interesting and satisfying glass of wine is often the one that finishes the bottle?

Classic Examples

1996 Marcassin Chardonnay Upper Barn Sonoma ($40)
1995 Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac) ($200)
1994 Fonseca Vintage Port ($75)
1996 Château Léoville-Las Cases (St.-Julien) ($100)
1994 Taylor Vintage Port ($75)
1997 Falesco Montiano ($35)
1995 Château L'Eglise-Clinet (Pomerol) ($65)
1995 Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard Napa ($75)

The ability of a wine to improve with age

This is, for better or worse, an indisputable characteristic of great wines. One of the unhealthy legacies of the European wine writers (who dominated wine writing until the last decade) is the belief that in order for a wine to be exceptional when mature, it had to be nasty when young. My experience has revealed just the opposite -- wines that are acidic, astringent, and generally fruitless and charmless when young become even nastier and less drinkable when old. With that being said, new vintages of top wines are often unformed and in need of 10 or 12 years of cellaring (in the case of top California Cabernets, Bordeaux, and Rhône wines), but those wines should always possess a certain accessibility so that even inexperienced wine tasters can tell the wine is -- at the minimum -- made from very ripe fruit. If a wine does not exhibit ripeness and richness of fruit when young, it will not develop nuances with aging. Great wines unquestionably improve with age. I define "improvement" as the ability of a wine to become significantly more enjoyable and interesting in the bottle, offering more pleasure old than when it was young. Many wineries (especially in the New World) produce wines they claim "will age," but this is nothing more than a public relations ploy. What they should really say is "will survive." They can endure 10-20 years of bottle age, but they were more enjoyable in their exuberant youthfulness.

Classic Examples
1990 Château Latour (Pauillac) ($500)
1997 E. Altare Barolo Arborina ($48)
1998 Haut-Brion (Graves) ($135)
1990 Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape ($35)
1990 Château Climens (Barsac/Sauternes) ($85)
1989 Laville-Haut-Brion (Graves) ($135)

The ability of a wine to offer a singular personality

When one considers the greatest wines produced, it is their singular personalities that set them apart. It is the same with the greatest vintages. The abused usage of a description such as "classic vintage" has become nothing more than a reference to what a viticultural region does in a typical (normal) year. Exceptional wines from exceptional vintages stand far above the norm, and they can always be defined by their singular qualities -- both aromatically and in their flavors and textures. The opulent, sumptuous qualities of the 1982 and 1990 red Bordeaux, the rugged tannin and immense ageability of the 1986 red Bordeaux, the seamless, perfectly balanced 1994 Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignons and proprietary blends, and the plush, sweet fruit, high alcohol and glycerin of the 1990 Barolos and Barbarescos, are all examples of vintage individuality.

Classic Examples
1990 Château Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf (St.-Émilion) ($75)
1990 Sandrone Barolo Boschis ($150)
1989 Château Clinet (Pomerol) ($100)
1994 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa ($55)
1994 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa ($65)
1992 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Napa ($45)
1982 Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac) ($750)
1986 Château Margaux (Margaux) ($300)
1996 Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac) ($300)

Copyright © 1995, 1999 by Robert M. Parker, Jr.

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