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Springsteen, Birthday Dinners and Wine Lists

Thursday, August 16th marked my 28th birthday, and I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off from work to celebrate. I headed to Boston on Wednesday night, and closed out my 27th year watching Bruce Springsteen deliver one of the most memorable concert performances I've ever seen at Fenway Park. Fenway Park Scoreboard Before SpringsteenAside from wine, two of my biggest passions are sports and live music, so seeing Springsteen at Fenway was an amazing synthesis of my life's other interests. I know that this is a wine blog, and you probably didn't come here looking for a concert review, so I'll leave it to the experts to recount just how incredible the Boss' Fenway performance was. Let me just say briefly though, this show was unbelievable. If I were to relate it to a wine drinking experience, it would have to be akin to drinking Salon or Krug or some other top flight Champagne. It's expensive, and it's not something you'll do everyday, but as you're enjoying it you have to smile, because you know that you're experiencing something that's absolutely transcendent, and worth every penny you paid for it. That's how I felt about Springsteen's show.

Me at the Springsteen ShowWednesday night was something of a rarity for me, because aside from the Champagne toast that my girlfriend and I shared before the show, I didn't drink much in the way of wine. Because of a time crunch, my dinner consisted of a ballpark sausage and a Miller Lite, but I felt like I was in good company, as Bruce himself ate a hot dog and chugged a beer while continuing to play the guitar during the show. I did enjoy a glass of rosé at Eastern Standard on the way home, however, and it was fabulous. The 2011 Domaine du Collotte Marsannay Rosé is a rosé of 100% Pinot Noir, from Marsannay, the northernmost growing region in Burgundy. Definitely dark in color for a rosé, it had an almost crimson hue, and offered succulent red fruit aromas and flavors. However, it is fermented completely dry, and would make a terrific companion for heartier fish and lighter meats, such as salmon or pork. I enjoyed it alongside steak tartare, and it was delicious.

My last night in Boston was spent at Erbaluce, in Boston's theater district. This restaurant had just opened when I moved back to Vermont from Boston in 2009, but I had heard stellar reviews, and had marked the restaurant as being a place I needed to try out. Named after the indigenous Piedmontese grape, Erbaluce features a seasonally changing all Italian menu, and does not use cream or butter in any of its dishes. The menu is complimented by an all Italian wine list. For my birthday dinner, I enjoyed a bavette steak, while my girlfriend dined on a Tuscan-style pasta dish. For a wine, we chose the 2009 Dirupi "Ole" Nebbiolo, which with its earthen cherry flavors and bright acidity, made an excellent pairing to each of our meals. A Sangiovese-based wine would have also paired nicely. 

As I looked over the Erbaluce's wine list on my birthday eve, I couldn't help but think of New York Post columnist, Steve Cuozzo, whose recent rants against esoteric wine lists set off a heated debate in the wine community that many are describing as the "Wine List Kerfluffle" or the "Wine List Flap."

Mr. Cuozzo ignited the firestorm surrounding the wine list debate with his recent published an article entitled "Sour Grapes," that described many New York restaurant wine lists as "inscrutable" for their decision to focus solely on esoteric bottlings that aligned with the restaurant's culinary style. Mr. Cuozzo accused the sommeliers who designed the lists of being "determined to teach you a thing or two," and made the process of ordering a bottle of wine while out to dinner seem like a genuine chore.

"Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case," wrote Mr. Cuozzo. "You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it."

I can sympathize with Mr. Cuozzo's lament about having friends "beg [me] to get on with it," as I frequently pore over a restaurant's wine list for extensive periods of time. However, my perusal of the wine list is genuinely a source of pleasure for me. I love seeing the various wines that restauranteurs and sommeliers choose to feature on their wine lists, and view them as a source of wine recommendations. Judging by Mr. Cuozzo's description, you would think that choosing a wine while out to dinner was akin to taking out the garbage, or doing the dishes. Let's go through his rant again. Ordering a bottle of wine while out to dinner at a presumably nice restaurant was described as a "nuisance even in the easiest case," because Mr. Cuozzo finds himself "under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room." To me, this sounds more like trying to work in a textile mill, rather than order a bottle of wine in a restaurant. I'm not sure of the type of audience that Mr. Cuozzo is trying to reach in his New York Post column, but I would hope that there aren't that many people who view ordering a bottle of wine in the same light as he does. If there are that many people out there for whom ordering a bottle of wine at dinner is an issue, then we as wine writers and educators are not doing our job. 

In the same article, Cuozzo went on to deride the wine lists of Greek restaurants that chose to feature all Greek wines, and then thoroughly laced into a new restaurant called Reynard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I have never been to Reynard, but in reading the rebuttals to Mr. Cuozzo's rant, I learned that they offer an entirely French wine list which irritated Mr. Cuozzo because it focused on “'all-natural' wines made 'without intervention' by small (i.e., obscure) producers," and because he "didn’t recognize a single bottle among [the] nearly 200 available." 

I won't waste time delving into a recap of the maelstrom that Mr. Cuozzo's article inspired, because it has already been done, and I'd rather focus on adding to the discussion. Suffice it to say, Mr. Cuozzo's rant touched on a hot-button issue, and led to the production of several thoughtful responses from bloggers and wine writers across the coast. Some particularly thoughtful pieces offering a rebuttal to Mr. Cuozzo's rhetoric that I identified with were written by Eric Asimov of the New York Times, and by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. The entire episode was nicely summarized by Alice Feiring, who offered another take on how the fear of appearing ignorant may have led to Cuozzo's tirade, and by Talia Baiocci, who provides a blow by blow recap of the situation.

Perhaps it is a result of the environments in which I cultivated my appreciation for wine, but of the hundreds of wines on the list at Reynard that Mr. Cuozzo deemed unrecognizable, I found several favorites, including many grower Champagnes, several rosés (including classics such as the Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rosé, the Commanderie de Peyrassol Côtes de Provence Rosé, and the Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé), and white and red selections from well known appellations across France. To be fair, lesser known appellations are also well represented, but for those unfamiliar with what grapes are grown in obscure appellations such as Arbois or the Côtes du Jura, Reynard lists the grape varietal in parenthesis next to each of its wines. Again, having not been to the restaurant, I have no idea what the atmosphere at the table is like, but in looking at the wine list, there is nothing to suggest that Reynard is trying to make it difficult for the average patron to order a bottle of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or other grape varietal of their choice, provided they are willing to try a wine from a region that they may be unfamiliar with.

In deference to Mr. Cuozzo, there was only one wine on the Reynard list that included Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and the lack of Bordeaux seemed to be one of Cuozzo’s principle sources of irritation. I have nothing against Steve Cuozzo's desire to enjoy a nice Bordeaux with a roast chicken at a decent price. To echo one of Jon Bonné’s sentiments from his take on the debate, a nice Bordeaux with roast chicken sounds perfectly enjoyable to me. However, if I were employed as a food or wine critic of a major publication, I would have been embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with a single wine on a list of almost two-hundred, no matter how esoteric the list might be. Even if Mr. Cuozzo was trying to use a bit of hyperbole to illustrate the obscure nature of Reynard’s wine list, his comment came off as dismissive and callous. After reading his article, I came away with the same sentiments towards Mr. Cuozzo that many basketball fans harbor towards highly paid players that cannot make a free throw. If you are a gainfully employed critic who feels qualified to comment on wine, the least you can do for your readership is to provide new advice and insight regarding wine consumption habits.

I take issue with someone who purports themselves as being qualified to offer wine related criticism, and then dismisses a carefully crafted list of 200 wines, because they deem the wines unrecognizable, and because they are opposed to the naturalist, small production, non-interventionist style of winemaking. In all seriousness, Mr. Cuozzo, there wasn’t one wine on the list that you might have remembered? Maybe after asking the sommelier or wait staff for help, you might have found one wine that agreed with your palate? Nearly every wine consumer on the planet is familiar with Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But what service do we as wine writers and educators provide by resorting to offering tired recommendations that reinforce readers’ comfort zones? Occasionally, it is worthwhile to examine the general state of quality of a particular region or grape varietal. Yet, in general, I am a strong advocate of the mindset that life is too short for one wine, and by exposing readers to a broad variety of wines, wine critics and educators can help to lessen unpleasant dining experiences such as the one Mr. Cuozzo was forced to endure at Reynard.

Mr. Cuozzo wrote a subsequent column, where he addressed the criticism aimed at his scathing review of restaurant wine lists. He stated that his primary goal in writing the article was “only to point out how dumb it is to make wine choosing an ordeal,” but then went on to attack “natural wine,” which he pronounced as “usually … a clunky product — at their worst, as rough-edged as the eerie, grape-based beverage my paternal grandfather and uncles once made in their Brooklyn back yards and cellars.” Midway through the column, he paused to briefly offer some positively oriented wine related advice, as he admitted to having enjoyed the La Ferme des Sept Lunes Saint-Joseph (100% Syrah from the Northern Rhône) while at Reynard. Yet, in an attempt to further his agenda against natural wines, he also mentioned that Reynard had served him a "banal pinot noir," a "disconcertingly cloudy sauvignon blanc," and a "mysterious red evocative of descending into a mildew-caked farmhouse cellar." At least he was considerate enough not to have named the wines, but I was left wondering if he had even asked the staff at Reynard if the wines were showing as they should have. Non-interventionist winemaking can certainly yield wines that are less stable than those that are more thoroughly manipulated, but these techniques are used in the production of a majority of the world's great wines. I wholeheartedly endorse Mr. Cuozzo's right to object to wines that some would describe as funky, or earthy. However, those flavor characteristics are what many wine enthusiasts love in their wines, and I sincerely doubt that a sommelier who would take the time to painstakingly craft such a list would have included substandard wines merely to prove a point. Yet through it all, Mr. Cuozzo maintained that he was "standing up for the imbibing millions" by continuing to demand more familiar wine choices on wine lists such as Reynard's, echoing his earlier refrain of "how hard it can be to choose even a wine one knows well in a dark, cramped and raucous dining room."  

The words of Mr. Cuozzo’s rebuttal came ringing back to me as I sat at Erbaluce last Thursday. I thought to myself, that had I allowed myself to be guided by a critic such as Mr. Cuozzo, I would have likely been frustrated by the restaurant’s all Italian wine list, and allowed it to cast a pall over my meal. I also laughed to myself as I recognized many wines on Erbaluce’s list as favorites from the Neal Rosenthal portfolio. In thinking about Mr. Cuozzo’s rant against natural wines, I realized that if his readers bought into his derision of “wines [that] are typically made “without intervention” and [are] unfiltered,” they would miss out on the majority of stellar portfolios offered by importers like Rosenthal, as well as Kermit Lynch, Eric Solomon, and others. They would also miss out on standout wines from a host of domestic producers that adhere to the philosophies of natural wine making.

There will always be critics that adhere to a staunch defense of the old guard, and will look at the dour side of any departure from what they view as the norm. Jon Bonné offered an interesting metaphor for this phenomenon in his response to Cuozzo, characterizing the divide between wine philosophies as political, with Cuozzo and the old guard playing the role of conservatives. Still, one has to feel sorry for those that are absorbed with critics such as Cuozzo, and allow themselves to become students of a wine school where Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other mainstream varietals are the only subjects. In the children's movie Ratatouille, critic Anton Ego offers up this quote regarding a defense of the new from a critics perspective.

"... there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends..." 

It is easy to take the perspective of critics like Cuozzo, and cater to an audience that wants to be affirmed in their choice of a simple Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay. Yet, without critics to praise adventurous lists like the one at Reynard, no progress would be made. Sometimes, consumers have to be forced outside their comfort zone to find a new favorite taste. Just as food is taking leaps forward with the rise of movements such as molecular gastronomy, the boundaries of wine consumption are being simultaneously expanded, as we are exposed to more wines, from more grape varietals, and from more countries than even before. Nerello Mascalese? Zwiegelt? Torrontes? Very few people had heard of these grapes 10 years ago. Now, if you're an adventurous wine consumer, you recognize them as terrific alternatives to more commonly known wines, both in terms of taste and economics.

While it may or may not be to a restaurant’s advantage to craft an esoteric wine list, it is well within their right, and if you allow yourself to be exposed to a broad variety of wines, obscure selections on a wine list can well work to your advantage. I’m concluding the celebration of my birthday by spending a week on Nantucket,Writing at the beach and the other evening, my family, girlfriend and I visited Dune for dinner. Amidst the other, more pricey selections of trophy wines on their list, I came across a listing for a 2009 Pascal Granger "Le Bouteau" Beaujolais Villages2009 Pascal Granger “Les Bouteau” Beaujolais Villages. The 2009 vintage was one of the best of the past century in Beaujolais, and Pascal Granger is one of a small number of Beaujolais producers in the Neal Rosenthal portfolio. On top of these positive attributes, the wine is highly sought by those who know it well, and it is no longer available in most retail outlets. At $36, it was one of the least expensive wines on the list, and the light-bodied character of the Gamay grape made it the perfect red to accompany the varied selections of steak, tuna, fluke and cod that were at our table.

“This is delicious. What a great red,” said my mother, as she took her first sip of the wine when the bottle arrived.

I smiled happily, as my mother is not generally a fan of red wines. However, the wine was soft, with bright red fruit notes, and little in the way of tannin. It was a universal hit at the table. While I’m not sure why it was still on Dune’s wine list long after it was no longer available in stores, I’m willing to guess that a Beaujolais Villages has been a tough sell for the vacationing crowd that is looking for wines that they are comfortable with, and know well. While I don’t deny that everyone should have favorite wines that they can return to time and again, life is too short for one wine. With so many great wines available today, wine professionals need to be working tirelessly to break down the barriers of fear that prevent consumers from stepping outside their comfort zone, and trying new wines. This is why I conduct tasting panels, and why I teach wine tasting classes. It is why wine shops host wine tastings for new wines when they arrive in stores. It is why restaurants like Reynard and Erbaluce offer wine lists that feature only French and Italian wines. And finally, it is why food and wine critics must write to encourage consumers to try new wines. It is their job to lead the expedition into uncharted territory. Unfortunately, some of them would rather continue to complain, and suffer the ordeal of having to order off an unfamiliar list, in dark, noisy dining rooms. Hopefully, as more people write in defense of the new, the light in those dining rooms will become a little brighter, and everyone can enjoy going out to dinner again.

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