Robin Goldstein -- who edits the Fearless Critic guides -- has published an intriguing little book about wine. It's called The Wine Trials. [Caveat: I know Robin, and I participated in one of his wine tastings last week.]
If you like wine, this book gives a lot to think about.
Goldstein argues that most people buy wine based on image rather than smell and taste. He argues that when most people are given wine without seeing the label, they prefer cheap wines just as much or more than expensive wines.
To prove this, he organized tastings in New York, New England, Austin, and Houston. The tasters included everyone from ordinary folks to wine professionals. They tried wines poured from bottles in paper bags. Some of the wines tried were in the $50 - $150 range. Many wines were under $15.
The result? Although the some of the pros preferred the expensive wines, most ordinary people actually preferred the wines under $15.
To me, this doesn't suggest that cheap wines are inherently as good as expensive wines. It just proves that people are more likely to prefer the kind of wines they are used to drinking.
Goldstein's book raises this question: unless you want to waste money, why develop a habit of preferring expensive wines if you already prefer cheap ones?
Top 100 wines under $15
Goldstein used tastings to come up with a list of the favorite 100 wines under $15. This top 100 list is surprising.
For instance, of 35 white table wines, 11 are Sauvignon Blanc. This probably reflects the current trend toward crisp unoaked whites. Only 7 are Chardonnays, even though that varietal still dominates the market.
Yet I was amazed at the near-absence of wines from Germany and Austria, particularly Riesling. (There was one Riesling table wine and one dessert riesling). Riesling was once the most popular red or white varietal in the world. Many sommeliers believe riesling is the single best varietal of any color to match with most foods. And good Rieslings are available for under $15.
Were the tasters not offered many Rieslings? Or did the tasters not like them?
The red list includes more than 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and 5 Malbecs. But even though Zinfandel usually works with a wider range of food, the list only includes 2 Zins.
Again, were not many Zinfandels tasted? Or did the tasters not like them?
The problems with wine tastings
As much as I applaud Goldstein's book, I suspect this sort of blind tasting is not the best way for me to pick wines to drink with dinner.
One problem is food. When I drink wine, 90 percent of the time it is with food. Food changes the flavor and the experience of wine.
Although many of Goldstein's tastings are in restaurants, I see little mention of food. The photos show tasters sitting in front of 6 - 8 glass of wine. No food. At the tasting I attended, food was prepared by oustanding local chef Justin Yu. Yet the food was served after most people had turned in their tasting results.
These blind, no-food tastings may be the best way to pick a cheap wine to serve in bars or at parties, when people drink wine by itself. But it is not necessarily the best way to choose wine that will enhance the experience of eating.
Another problem is the head-to-head comparison. We normally experience one wine at a time. In a head-to-head tasting, a wine might stand out in a group of 6 wines because the taster's palate is reacting to all six wines. Yet a different one of those wines might be better when experienced by itself.
For instance, in tastings of pricey red wines where I have tried 15 or so wines against each other, I find that fruity California Pinot Noirs often stand out. Some of the worst performers in these big tastings are Rhone wines. Yet I often get much more enjoyment out of a Rhone wine than a Pinot Noir when I drink it alone.
Goldstein's book is just a start
I agree with Goldstein's main argument: most people, including me, will enjoy a number of different wines that cost under $15. Plus, his paper-bag tasting method is the simplest, cleanest way to prove that.
But I seriously doubt that this book's top-100 list represents the best cheap wines to drink with food. I suspect it is a list for the best cheap wines without food. If different foods had been served, my guess is that the top 100 wines under $15 would have been a completely different list.
Because I want the best cheap wines for foods, I am going to have to do a lot of my own experimenting. I am going to have to cook a lot of diverse dishes (hamburgers, scallops in white sauce, pasta with red sauce, Thai salad). Then I am going to have to try each dish with many different wines in brown paper bags.
This is going to take a long time and many, many tests.
Life is short. I had better get started.