Oenophiles ask Mike Steinberger about finding great wines at good prices.
Mike Steinberger: Am I that obvious? I do have a Euro-centric palate; it was cultivated on French wines, and Bordeaux and Burgundy remain my touchstones. That said, there are lots of wines from the West Coast that I adore. At this point, I should be building a shrine to Paul Draper: I am in awe of what the man has achieved up on his mountain. I had lots of good things to say about Oregon Pinot Noir in the piece I did last Thanksgiving, and as American winemaking continues to progress (and let's remember: it's still early days here—the French have been at this for centuries), there are going to be many more domestic wines to praise.
Oregon: Why the $15 cut off? I know of plenty of pinot noirs that are tasty (and local to Oregon) but they generally start at $15. That being said, there are a lot of bargains to be had under $20 or $25.
Mike Steinberger: I chose $15 and under because that struck me a fair cut-off point for "everyday" wines. People might treat themselves to $35 Pinots on the weekend; most of us aren't drinking $35 wines Monday through Friday. And you are absolutely right: There are lots of excellent wines to be found in the $15-25 range.
Livermore, Calif.: Please don't give away the wine geek secrets! If people want to drink great wine, they should have to work for it. There are only a few thousand cases of Trimbach's Cuvee Frederic Emile for the whole world, roughly the same as total production for, say, Romanee-Conti. Only a small spike in demand quickly will make it absolutely unaffordable for everyday upper-middle-class drinkers (and journalists, for that matter).
Besides, I'm not convinced that the "greatest" wines in the world are to everyone's taste. Only by familiarizing yourself with lesser examples can you taste the nuances that separate a merely delicious wine from a unforgettable experience. Thanks always for your vibrant storytelling about a subject that inexplicably attracts unwarranted dryness.
Mike Steinberger: Thanks very much for the kind words; much appreciated.
These are indeed wine geek secrets. And I was certainly aware, in writing the article, that I was potentially creating problems for myself and other grape nuts. What you say is absolutely true: A small spike in demand is all it takes to clean the shelves of a wine like the Cuvee Frederic Emile or—even more to the point—the Dauvissat Preuses. So, yes, I recognized that I was possibly shooting myself in the foot (actually, I did that by forgetting to burn those damn receipts!). But Slate isn't paying me to keep secrets—my job is to steer people to wines that I think merit their attention, and at all price points.
You are right: "Greatest" is a subjective judgment, and a wine that I think is great might not thrill someone else. As I pointed out in the article, a person accustomed to rich, buttery California Chardonnays may find the Cuvee Frederic Emile much too austere and mineral-driven for their taste. That said, I am reasonably confident that the list I compiled won't elicit too much dissent from other critics and other wine geeks—I think these wines are all pretty well recognized as being among the greats.
Your point about developing taste—I think you need to taste both kinds of wines. But it is through tasting wines like the CFE, or the Taittinger Comtes, or the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, that one establishes benchmarks. Someone tasting these wines might decide that they are not worth the money, and that's fine. But I think the extra quality that these wines offer does shine through, and these wines do have a way of becoming mental yardsticks.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
Washington, D.C.: You're also a much more cultivated wine drinker than the average consumer ... I am not sure I would taste the difference between a $15 and a $50 bottle of wine. I like wine, and I can tell when something is AWFUL, but I guess my real question is why should I ever pay more than $20 if I don't have much of a palate?
Mike Steinberger: Don't sell your palate short. If you know when something is awful, you've got a discerning palate. If you can swing it, try some pricier wines (good ones—just because a wine costs $45 doesn't mean it's good) and see how they compare to less expensive bottles. If you don't find any qualitative difference, consider yourself lucky—you'll be saving yourself a bundle of money. If, on the other hand, you do detect a jump in quality, welcome to this very expensive but immensely pleasurable hobby.
Wilmington, Del.: Thanks for using a local place for your $15 and under piece—I'll be checking it out tonight with your article. For local(ish) wines, I was wondering if you had checked out the Finger Lakes wines? There are a few vineyards there that I love. Lucas vineyard has a great inexpensive ($17/18) Pinot Noir. There's another one—I think it's Stone mill or Old mill or something like that—that has a light, very dry reisling. California isn't the only wine-producing region in the U.S.!
Mike Steinberger: The Finger Lakes has produced one iconic figure: Hermann Wiemer, who really put the region on the map and who was renowned for his work with riesling. He is retired now, I believe, but the winery still exists, and I'm sure it is still producing lovely Rieslings.
Mike Steinberger is Slate's wine columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.