Wine Avenger

Wine Avenger

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by Willie Gluckstern, Ben Crumlich

A longtime champion of the victimized wine consumer, Willie Gluckstern debunks the myths and misinformation surrounding the (allegedly) complex subject of wine. His straightforward advice includes:

  • The wines that go BEST with food — and why.

…  See more details below


A longtime champion of the victimized wine consumer, Willie Gluckstern debunks the myths and misinformation surrounding the (allegedly) complex subject of wine. His straightforward advice includes:

  • The wines that go BEST with food — and why.
  • A cure for label worship: "There are just as many lousy $60 bottles as $3.99 bottles."
  • How to avoid getting ripped off in stores and restaurants.
  • How to choose a great wineshop: "Do they know where Italy is?"
  • Dreary housekeeping tips, such as storage, decanting, saving opened wine, and "that sulfite thing."

Plus, the straight poop on oak, "the MSG of wine," a few well-chosen words for greedy restaurants and retailers ("Those bastards!"), and an unprecedented expose of mass-market Champagne, including how to find the good stuff by cracking the secret label code.
Irreverent, informative, and controversial, The Wine Avenger is indispensable for beginners as well as enthusiasts.

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Editorial Reviews

Peggy Gradinsky
It doesn't weigh much.
The James Beard House
Al Bassano
Gluckstern's best selling Wine Avenger has the snobs hyperventilating and down-to-Earth wine lovers cheering.
Bloomberg Multi-Media
Margaret Howell
Armed with The Wine Avenger, most will feel comfortable and confident when ordering wine.
Robin Raisfeld
A book that divides the viticultural world handily into angels and demons.
New York Magazine
Harvey Steiman
...[A] destroyer of myths, a protector of the consumer and a teller of truths that no one else will say.
The Wine Spectator
Library Journal
Gluckstern does not give amateurs a brief, fundamental course in wine appreciation; for that, pick up Mary E. Mulligan's Wine for Dummies (IDG, 1995) or shorter pieces by authorities like Matt Kramer. Instead, his book belongs in the company of Leslie Brenner's Fear of Wine (LJ 10/1/95), offering solace to the intimidated beginnerthough it's more acerbic. The purchasing director for a popular New York City wine store, Nancy's Wines, Gluckstern takes extreme positions that are both the guide's strength and its weakness. For instance, he justly reprimands those mainstream critics who focus on too narrow an audience but then diminishes his credibility with polemic (e.g., while qualified "wine experts" these days agree that chardonnays have been over-oaked, his tone completely dismisses this grape, which does produce some very graceful wines). Gluckstern gives more (deserved) attention to the virtues of German wines and provides excellent advice on food and wine matching. Not a required purchase for substantial wine collections, but it's good to have someone advocating for the novice.Wendy Miller, Lexington P.L., KY

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OAK: The MSG of Wine

Recipe for Chardonnay

One 10,000-gallon fermentation tank

10,000 gallons of Chardonnay grape juice

Two 25-pound burlap sacks of oak chips (extra-light, light, medium toast, extra-medium toast, heavy toast, or extra-heavy toast)

1. Toss oak sacks into tank with Chardonnay juice.

2. Let steep for about a month, lifting and dunking occasionally (like giant tea bags).

3. Fish out sacks.

4. Bottle and label.

Serves 106,000

Many kinds of containers are used to ferment grape juice into wine. The following are the three most popular:

  1. Stainless steel, a neutral environment. It imparts nothing to the fermenting wine-zero aroma, flavor, or mouthfeel.
  2. Used oak (barrels that have held wine in a previous year). It imparts weight and a rich, viscous mouthfeel without adding sweetness or flavoring.
  3. New oak. It adds a lot: enriched body, tannin, and certain unmistakable aromas and tastes. These include vanilla, caramel, buttered toast, and all too often, burnt popcorn kernels. Above all, new oak adds its own nonvinous, rough-hewn sweetness.


  • The staves of oak barrels allow mild, beneficial oxidation of wines as they age.
  • Oak enriches a wine's body and adds viscosity.
  • Oak's natural tannins act as a preservative for wine (important for aging big reds and a few whites).
  • It creates a vanilla-like sweetness.

Oak is generally used in the form of barrels. Wines fermented in oak barrels are far more powerfully influenced by its character than wines merely aged in them. Oak should be applied only to a wine that already boasts substantial weight and flavor of its own, and that means rich reds, primarily. While the expert use of oak barrels in the maturation of great red wines is essential, misuse merely contributes strong barrel flavors that obliterate any varietal aromas in a wine. Very few white wine varieties reap any benefit from contact with new oak. New oak acts on white wine like MSG, sweetening up but dumbing down whatever vibrant varietal signature exists.

For Chardonnay, the grape on which new oak cooperage is most often lavished, varietal character is a nonissue. As a variety, Chardonnay has so little flavor of its own that it is often entirely dependent on a winemaker's "recipe." Most Chardonnays are created in the winery with oak, not in the vineyard with pruning shears. For Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc, the food world's three most important white wine grape varieties, new oak is the Antichrist. The joy of these varieties as food mates is their freshness, delicacy, and succulence, all qualities that wilt in the presence of new wood.


For many years, the American public, who are by no definition daily wine drinkers, have been seduced by wines oaked in the most heavy-handed method imaginable. Virtually all under-$10 white wines produced in the United States are sugared with oak chips, powders, and essences. Oak-obsessed California winemakers simply will not let the poor palate-dead American consumer come up for air. (To be fair, neither will the Australians, South Africans, or Chileans.) It's nearly impossible to find a nonoaked domestic white wine of any kind, save a handful of East Coast whites and a very few West Coast examples (Randall Grahm's Malvasian bonbons). This begs the question: Why is virtually all white wine made in America bludgeoned with oak?

American wine drinkers, as well as those of countless other nations, are weaned on cold sweet drinks — fruit juice, soda pop, etc. Since all alcohol is puritanically forbidden here until at least voting age, we have never been a wine-drinking nation. Our first tentative contact with the grape is logically made most painless with a beverage of comparable sweetness to fruit juice and soda pop. Once we are initiated into a world of oaked wines, our reprogramming requires a complete reinterpretation of individual taste.

There are actually grape varieties that provide us with the sort of sweetness we love without relying on enhancement by nonliving substances. Unfortunately (or fortunately), these wondrous varieties don't flourish well in most parts of the world.

To satisfy the great American sweet tooth, the wine industry has marked each decade with a new "pop wine": Cold Duck in the sixties, Lambrusco in the seventies, white Zinfandel in the eighties, and finally in the nineties, the great seducer — Chardonnay.

Since Americans historically have little or no contact with clean, well-made, nonoaked wines, they neither understand nor enjoy them. They do enjoy the concept of wine — as long as it doesn't taste like wine. Oaked wines are far easier for non-wine-drinkers to deal with. They are mild, low-acid, sweet beverages that are popular for many of the some reasons as fastfood hamburgers: The taste is reliable, always the same — not great but no surprises.

The wine establishment, because of a combination of taking the path of least resistance and its own nonenlightened wine experience, has become an unwitting accomplice to this oak-driven madness.

When consumers, retailers, and restaurateurs cease associating the aroma of oak with quality, perhaps winemakers will stop abusing it. In my twenty-five years' experience teaching consumer and wait staff wine classes, I've found that when someone who's genuinely interested in wine tastes a range of examples uninfluenced by new-oak treatment, set out side by side with oaked wines, they become instant converts to "the real thing."

Copyright © 1998 by Willie Gluckstern

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What People are saying about this

Leonard Lopate
Willie Gluckstern's new book is invaluable.
(—Leonard Lopate, National Public Radio)
Tai Hernandez
His theories have proven intoxicating.
(—Tai Hernandez, reporter for New York One News)

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Wine Avenger 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
BKClark More than 1 year ago
Willie Gluckstern hits it on the head. Having worked in the wine business for several years, and supporting the industry as a consumer for over 30 years. We have discovered...there is a lot of hype out there. Over-oaked chardonnays...(or stuff put on the bottom of the stainless tanks to make the stuff taste "oak-like" or "buttery") has been promoted way past its expiration date. Each person needs to taste each wine themselves, with and without food, to determine what they prefer. Yes, there are some basic rules..strong chardonnay is needed for stinky fish, a sweeter wine such as Riesling will compliment a hot dish such as Thai or hot Spanish cuisine. Cabs go best with Beef....etc... Buy the book, try the wine, and let us know what you think!