The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wineby Dorothy J. Gaiter
Only hours after Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher's column appears each week in The Wall Street Journal, wine retailers from coast to coast are sold out of the couple's recommendations. Why? With a friendly style that is neither intimidating nor condescending, Dorothy and John provide straight talk for consumers who don't want to be taken for a ride, but do want to get maximum enjoyment from the abundance of good wines available today.
If you're like most people, when it comes to buying wine, you're lost. You walk into a wine shop and you're overwhelmed by the thousands of bottles staring back at you. So you probably pick up the same, safe Chardonnay or Merlot, afraid to take a chance on something different.
Dorothy and John know how you feel. They write their hugely popular "Tastings" column in the "Weekend Journal" for a frustrated majority: people who can afford more and better wine, who want to know more about wine, but who don't know where to begin.
In The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, they share everything you need to know about buying, drinking, and enjoying wine, along with listings of 300 great wine values to get you started. They encourage you to start at the beginning: Buy two bottles of similar wines, put them in numbered brown-paper bags, and taste them. You will like one better than the other. And that is how your wine education begins.
The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine features thirty different kinds of wine in all price ranges, from popular Chardonnays and Merlots to less familiar, but readily available, Gewürztraminers and Dolcettos. Can't find a particular wine mentioned? Look for one fromthe same region in the same price range.
Throughout the book you'll find helpful information on chilling wine, choosing a wine store, inviting your friends to a wine-tasting, and how to remember that wine you really liked. There are practical tips: what 12 basic bottles you should have on hand at all times, as well as how long to keep that special bottle of Bordeaux.
Through it all, John and Dorothy make it clear that wine isn't an end in itself, but just one part of a good life. This book is not just about wine, but about life, love, romance, and fun. Drink up!
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Read an Excerpt
Chardonnay: Forget the Conventional Wisdom
How popular is Chardonnay? Popular enough to have sparked a backlash, like the ABC Club--Anything But Chardonnay. Some folks think American Chardonnays are too big, too heavy, and too oaky. Well, maybe that's true, sometimes. But for the kind of white wine that makes you want to kneel and give thanks, you've got to turn to Chardonnay. It's the greatest white wine grape in the world, the grape of the famous Montrachet from France, as well as the suddenly hot Kistler Chardonnay from California. Of course, it's possible some meathead could ruin a good grape, but we--and, we'd wager, most wine lovers--have had more great wines made from Chardonnay than any other type of white grape.
With great wines, of course, come great experiences.
Back in 1980, there was a restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village called the Coach House that was famous for its black bean soup and corn bread. We walked down there from Gramercy Park on a mild June day to celebrate Dottie's being hired by the New York Times. We sat down and looked at the wine list. The people next to us were having something we'd never seen, a 1978 Chardonnay from Robert Keenan Winery in California, which wasn't on the list. So when our waiter came by, we asked if we could have a bottle of that. He squinted at us, hurried away--and came back with a bottle (for $18).
Here are our notes: "Spectacular! Huge! Much oak, obviously late-picked. Much character, complexity, even a hint of Riesling. Yet great butteriness combined with oak and bigness. Very wonderful."
We lost track of Robert Keenan Winery after that. It wasn't big or very famous. Butmore than a decade later, we came across Keenan again while eating lunch at another restaurant not far from the then-shuttered Coach House. This restaurant was called Capsouto Freres, and on its wine list was a Robert Keenan Cabernet Franc. Now everywhere you look you see "Cab Francs," but back then we knew it mostly as a blending grape. The Keenan was the first "varietal" Cabernet Franc we'd seen. It was excellent--so excellent, in fact, that when John returned to the office, still euphoric, he called Robert Keenan Winery to enthuse. The guy who answered the phone turned out to be the winemaker, who promised to send a catalogue so we could place an order. He did, we did--and we enclosed a note telling him about that fabulous Chardonnay at the Coach House.
Two weeks later, our order arrived--along with a gift bottle. It was the 1978 Chardonnay, the very same one we'd had at the Coach House. On it, in golden pen, was written: "Here's to the Memories. Robert Keenan."
We have had great Chardonnays from Idaho (Ste. Chapelle), Washington State (Chateau Ste. Michelle), and, of course, from all over California. What does a classic California Chardonnay taste like? It's big, rich, ripe, and buttery. It's mouthfilling, so you have to take small sips. It has a little bit of toastiness, vanilla, and some cream--those come from the wood--and it's almost chewy. Sometimes your nose can pick up hints of fruit--grapefruit or pineapple. The very best Chardonnays have all of this power going on in your mouth. But when you swallow, something miraculous happens. The "finish" is a clean, light one that lingers for several minutes, like the essence of plump, sweet grapes.
Now that is Chardonnay. Or at least that's the Chardonnay we grew up with in the '70s, and we make no apologies for being partial to it. If you don't like that style, which we call "big-ass Chardonnay" when the kids aren't listening, fine. If what you want is a more restrained Chardonnay style, buy a white Burgundy (see page 47). If you really want a crisp, great-with-food Chardonnay, buy a Chablis (see page 42). But unfortunately--for us, at least--starting in the '80s, critics began hammering American winemakers about their big, oaky Chardonnay. Ever sensitive to the market, some winemakers began to rein them in. Pretty soon, American winemakers were boasting about their "French-style" Chardonnay, meaning the wine had more restraint, a bit more lemon-acid taste, and less obvious flavors of wood. And to tell you the truth, we have to admit, sometimes those can be great, too.
When people talk about wood or oak, they're talking about barrels. Some wines, especially white wines meant to be fresh and fruity, never see the inside of a barrel. They're crisp, fragrant, and delightful. But most Chardonnay, like most good red wine, spends some time in oak barrels. Whether the wine is fermented in oak or just aged in oak matters. How long it's in oak matters. The size of the barrels matters. And so does the kind of oak itself. American oak imparts more dramatic flavors than French oak. New oak has more power than old oak, whose flavors have been depleted over the years and are mellower. "High-fire" barrels, which have been subject to more fire or charring in the barrel-making process, have more vanilla, toast, and caramel tastes than "low-fire" barrels. A winemaker once took us into his cellar and siphoned off two samples of a red wine, one from a new barrel and one from an old one. It was the same exact wine, but we never would have guessed it. While neither was ready to be bottled and sold, the wine from the older barrel was calmer, softer, while the wine from the newer barrel tasted so young and aggressive it was hard to swallow. Wood matters.
How much wood a wine gets--more generally, how a good wine is made--is a reflection of the character and vision of the winemaker. There's a lot of magic in the process, but there's a lot of method, too. Consider the winemaking notes about the 1997 Napa Valley Private Reserve Chardonnay made by Ed Sbragia, winemaker at Beringer Vineyards: "All of the juice went into small French Nevers oak barrels, most of them new, custom-toasted to caramelize the neutral sugars in the wood and contribute a sweet vanilla note to the wine. The wines were fermented and aged in these barrels, and the lees [spent yeast cells] were hand stirred back into the wine every week for about six months.... We also put the wines through 100-percent malolactic fermentation to further enhance their dense, creamy mouthfeel. The wines were aged in barrels for over nine months before we made the final assemblage."
You don't need to understand all of that rigmarole. The point is simply that winemaking is an art, and a highly personal one at that. But you know what? In the long run, nothing matters more than the fruit. As Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal, John tells reporters: "No matter how good a writer you are, your story won't be great if you don't have great reporting"--the raw data, the facts that go into a story. It's the same way with wine: It all starts with the fruit. Even a great winemaker can't make great wine from so-so fruit. California produces great Chardonnay fruit--big, plump, and rich. Fruit that can stand up to, and even benefit from, some oak. But at the same time, big fruit and big oak can sometimes be too much. This is why California Chardonnay has gone back and forth over the years from big to restrained to uncertain--and why we have notes like this, about a Long Vineyards 1992 we drank on Christmas Day, 1994: "Delicious! A real WOW wine. Huge, oaky, chewy, and almost red in its intensity. Lots of oak and spice, with massive, vanilla-bean overtones. Long, overwhelming finish. Not at all '90s, but very much a '70s Chardonnay. Mouthcoating, warming, and rich.''
So, how are Chardonnays now? We conducted two tastings to find out--one of Chardonnays under $20, and one of the high-priced stuff.
We tasted the inexpensive wines first. Quite a few of them were simple and inelegant, the kind of might-as-well-be-water stuff that too many people get at bars when they say, "I'd like a glass of Chardonnay, please." Think lemon water.
But there were many we really liked. We had never had a Sonoma-Loeb before, and this 1995 at $19.99 was a real California-style Chardonnay: bold, rich, round, powerful. In fact, even we found it just a bit too heavily "oaked." Whoa! Still, it was a fun, dramatic wine. The Byron 1996 ($15.99) also impressed us. This is a consistently fine label, and this offering was beautifully made, showing great restraint with plenty of fruit. A good food wine, this is what people are talking about when they discuss French-style California Chardonnay.
Nos. 2 and 3 were a toss-up, but the prices varied hugely. Both the Zaca Mesa 1996 and the Hahn Estates 1995 were remarkably good--plump, rich, mouthfilling--and easily $35 to $40 values. The Zaca Mesa was $15.99 and the Hahn, at $9.49, was the best value of the tasting. Like many good Chardonnays, it smelled and tasted of vanilla and nutmeg on a bed of rich, ripe fruit.
The best of the tasting was a monster of a wine. This wine was chewy, rich, complex, with the kind of finish that lingers in your mouth. It was risky: big at the front, crisp and clean at the end. As we said, without that restraint on the finish, a wine like this can be overly plump. Think of steak: A good bit of marbling makes a steak great; too much marbling and you just have a fatty steak. It's the same with wine.
This wine walked the line perfectly--and when we took it out of the bag, we laughed. It was from an old favorite, Estancia Estates, in this case the Private Reserve 1995. It sells for $19.99, but we feel it's worth more. Estancia's less expensive Chardonnay was our house white for years.
Meet the Author
Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Dorothy J. Gaiter reports on race issues for The Wall Street Journal. John Brecher is the Page One Editor of the newspaper. They fell in love with wine (and each other) 25 years ago and now live with their two daughters, Media and Zoë, in New York City, where they haunt wine shops in search of good values.
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For people seeking good basic information about tasting and buying wine, I highly recommend The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine. Written by The Wall Street Journal's regular wine columnists, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, the book offers straightforward, friendly advice on a wide range of topics, including tips for visiting wineries. You can also find Dorothy and John on the web at wine.wsj.com.
I was vacationing on Sanibel Island during Christmas 1999 when I saw Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher doing a wine segment for Martha Stewart's show. This husband and wife team were an absolute delight to watch and listen to as they discussed wine in a simple and down to earth manner. I purchased their book that very day and read it from cover to cover. I now read their column, 'Tastings', in the Wall Street Journal's Weekender edition without fail.
This is the opposite of snooty and a real celebration of pouring, tasting, enjoying and sharing wine. The down-to-earth tone is a refreshing change from most wine writing and isn't above ho-hum topics like what to take as a gift wine or what price is right to pay for a certain bottle. They're terrific - buy this book.