If you happened to catch last week’s Grapevine column (“The Ratings Game”), then you know that I’m critical of the numerical point scales that popular wine publications use to rate wines. I think that the ratings are almost invariably inflated: Perusing magazines like Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast you’d think that inferior wines just don’t exist since they almost never show up in the tasting reports.
But more important to me is the way that wine experts at those magazines taste the wines they review. Yes, I enjoy tasting wine, but I prefer drinking it. There’s a difference. I mention the distinction—tasting versus drinking—because I’ve come to the realization that the vast majority of wine writers, critics and experts are tasters, while most consumers are drinkers.
The fact is that the vast majority of wine drinkers consume wine with food. We tend to enjoy wine with friends and family around the dinner table at home and in restaurants. Experts who rate wines in magazines and newsletters invariably do so in what are called “blind tastings.” They taste wine in sterile surroundings, noting its nuances and characteristics and then they spit it out. Aside from bread or crackers to cleanse the palate, they never taste wine with food since the food would color the wine. But therein lies the fundamental problem. Since I don’t drink wine very often as a cocktail, what I really want to know is how a particular bottle of wine is going to taste with my meal. And so, rating wine based on blind tastings in a food-free environment doesn’t really tell me very much—except what a wine might taste like if I were on a hunger strike.
Another hazard of blind wine tastings is that experts like Robert Parker and the editors of Wine Spectator tend to favor big, powerful wines. They are invariably the ones that garner the highest ratings. But opulent powerhouse wines are not usually the best wines to pair with meals, since they tend to overwhelm food. Many of the best food-friendly wines are not all that memorable by themselves. But when teamed up with food, they really blossom. Robert Sinskey’s wines come to mind.
Sinskey makes wines to be consumed with food, and they don’t always fare well with the so-called experts. Robert Sinskey Vineyards Chardonnay, for example, has much more in common with elegant French white Burgundy than predictable in-your-face, over-oaked California Chardonnay. Ditto his Cabernet Sauvignon. The way I would describe these wines is “subtle,” which means that in a blind tasting, they might not be all that impressive. But sip them at a meal, and you’ll find, as Rob Sinskey says, “The wallflower becomes the belle of the ball.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Sinskey last month at a most enjoyable Paris Bistro wine dinner. His vineyard philosophy is based upon garden-quality organic farming. And his winemaking philosophy is simple: “Take the best grapes you can possibly produce and don’t fuck them up.” So you won’t find a lot of winemaker manipulation and tricks in a Sinskey wine. They are straightforward. The Merlot actually tastes like Merlot and a Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir tastes like Pinot Noir. What a concept!
If you enjoy wine with food, I’d recommend heading over to The Paris and trying some of Rob Sinskey’s wines with Eric DeBonis’ earthy French fare. The Sinskey Pinot Noir is a slam-dunk match for The Paris’ duck confit with lentils. Try the Pinot before you dig into the duck, and then again after. You’ll be astonished at the way the wine evolves alongside the food. And if DeBonis’ incredible slow-roasted pork shoulder dish is on the menu, order it with a bottle of Sinskey’s Merlot. It’s about as perfect a food and wine combo as you’re likely to find. So who the hell cares what kind of rating it gets in Wine Spectator?