December 28, 2006


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Got milk?

Sins of the vine
A wine writer confesses so as to better criticize
By Tim Protzman

There's this quandary in wine writing.

Do you say exactly what you think or do you just ignore the poor wine and talk about the good?

Most wine writers focus on the good wine, thinking what purpose does it serve to tell people what wines not to get. But because I've tasted so much mediocre wine recently, and I'm supposed to know the difference, maybe it's just as helpful to tell people which wines to ignore.

I'm not a person who gets off on hurting feelings. So I have to temper my words. Don't be too mean. Don't use excessive adjectives like nauseating and putrid. And it's helpful that even the worst, most oxidized wine that's gone past sherry well into vinegar still has some character. I've never met a wine that I totally hated. And if I'm going to be candid and frank, I've got to be fair and balanced. This means I need to fess up to my mistakes and spill the secrets of my own mediocre behavior. Sort of a Wine's Most Embarrassing Moments column. Here are a few vignettes and corrections.

First a correction. In a recent column about a month ago I said the Clio from Jumilla, Spain, was a mixture of different wines. It's not. It's 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 70 percent monastrell. No other grapes were harmed in the making of this wine.

Here's an Embarrassing Wine Moment. It was my first tasting, ever. I'd done a few informal tastings at a club where I worked and I'd even done a couple of fancy wine dinners. But finally here I was with Nori at a fundraiser tasting — 64 tables of wine, three or four wines per table. Hors d'oeuvres, finger foods and a huge mirror-topped table holding a mountain of cheese and bread. I found myself in love with, enchanted with and slightly intoxicated with this Spanish wine from the Priorat region. I'd visit a table on the far side of the hall take a sip of chardonnay and make a beeline back to the Spanish table. Soon the hospitality and pleasantries turned to "You're back, again?"

My face was red, not from embarrassment, but the wine. I begged another glass of the Spanish wine, telling them it was the best wine of the whole tasting. They gave me a tiny sip. I gulped it. Then they cut me off. Politely, but firmly.

"We'd love to give you more but the wine's such a hit we want everybody to get a taste, and we're running low."

This came from the distributor who graciously provided the wine, free, for the fundraiser.

So I did what everyone else would do, I left and made my way to the cheese table where I accosted two ladies I didn't know and asked them to get me a glass of the Spanish wine. They returned with a glass. Not a full glass but a sip. Better than nothing. I met up with Nori and had her get me a glass. I'd had about seven glasses of wine on an empty stomach and was feeling a little queasy. I headed for the men's room, but couldn't make it. I only got as far as the vestibule. But sitting on a waiter's tray was a silver bucket used for spitting and emptying wine glasses in. I grabbed it and dove into the men's room. As soon as I hit the tile part I yammied into the bucket. When I was done I put the bucket on the counter and turned to leave. There was one of the wine distributors. The Spanish wine distributor. He looked at me, then the bucket and said, "People, usually just spit in those — You should try it sometime."

I left the tasting and Nori drove home.

Another embarrassing moment was at another tasting. This one was purely commercial. I was hitting the champagne, a rather delicious and expensive Pol Roger.

Again I was cut off for "excessive tasting." But this time I wasn't swacked. I protested my innocence and even leveled charges of discrimination. But I didn't get another glass. I left gracefully, with a Styrofoam plate full of cheese.

Then there was the time at the wine dinner where I lied and told everyone I had graduated from a prestigious Ivy League drama school. The time I was staying at a friend's cottage and, being into wine, but very unknowledgeable, I used Batasiolo Vigneto Bofani Barolo, which they left in the wine rack, to make sangria punch. It was a $60 mistake. I assumed the one Italian wine was worth less than the five French ones only to learn they were vin ordinaire. And there was the time that started out good but went bad.

A woman I knew had married this man who owned a bus company. I'd chartered the bus for a corporate function. We ran into them at this jazz club. She was very polished and conservative, a real go-getter with the drive and willpower to do anything. She once asked me "what's your five-year plan? You do have a plan for where you want to be in five years?" I told her I did even though I was thinking ... I don't even know if I have clean underwear for tomorrow.

At the jazz club I commented to her husband on how clean and neat his buses were. This got me and Gil and his wife a bottle of Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, courtesy of the husband for our patronage and kind words about the bus line. That was the good part.

The bad part was when we were leaving and I stopped by their table to thank them again. They were drinking a French wine, a Cote Rotie. They offered me a glass. I took a small pour and took a sip. It was great. Spicy and peaty and fragrant and slippery and I spilled most of the glass on the husband's leg and this being the summer, he was wearing white.

I never got another drink from him again.

So now that I've revealed some of my bad behavior, except for really pushing deadlines, I feel free to be fair but candid about the highlights and flaws of the wines I taste.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

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