White, Red Wine

by Jim Malkin

Rather than chowder, fish, or clam, I like to talk wine, white or red. There’s alcohol on this Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Some of it is wine, and a good bit of it is in my blood-stream. Others like their shots with a beer, their tonics with a gin. But for me, the combination of a meal and a bottle is what makes my mouth happy.

Six winters ago, after moving from washashore summer-status to full-time voting residents, my wife Joan and I carried on with our love of food and cooking (and wine and drinking) with groups of our friends. (Let’s face it, in the long winter evenings, people will drive all the way up- and down- and across-Island for something to do.) Supper clubs and group dinners became our winter currency.

I’ve always been interested in wine—the vineyards, the grapes, the vintages, the history and the makers. So over these long dinners of rich winter fare, I’d break out bottles that interested me, for this or that reason, and that would hopefully appeal equally to my company. Some had travelled with me from Australia, some from England, some from the Big Ugly of Manhattan, and others from harbor-side Oak Bluffs.

But over decadent meals with rambling chats and emptied bottles, I began to notice that my companions didn’t really care about any of the wine stuff. They were happy with something that tasted good and provided a flow to the evening: A fine-tasting $20 Australian Shiraz was as welcome as $100 French Bordeaux.

So I decided to do a test. I invited folks who really knew their stuff—folks who could talk the talk and sniff the sniff with the best of ‘em. Each guest was to bring one bottle of really great red for a blind tasting over dinner; each was to provide their own decanter such that the labeled bottles would remain safely out of sight.

The lawyer and his lawyer wife, the art maven and his real-estate wife, the doctor and her ER-specialist husband, the Island’s fine wine purveyor, my wine-wanking son-in-law and my Aussie Riesling-loving daughter—they all joined Joan and me on a rotten winter night during the March That Never Went Away. Each bottle was carefully decanted and numbered, and only Joan knew which wine sat where.
Each guest received a scoring sheet.

We were all to rank the wines on color, bouquet, and taste; provide erudite commentary; and, not least, identify the wine. The forthcoming chat was right out of an imagined script for a wine ad: “Oh, this is my full-bodied Barolo with its distinct Italian minerality,” and, “This is definitely the St. Emilion—you can tell by the earthy tones.” And on, and on.

We turned from tasting each wine to finishing the remains of the decanters over our meal. During dessert, Joan took everyone’s sheet and announced the identity of the wines. Shock and horror followed. Not one of the cork dorks (including myself) had been able to identify the wine that he or she had brought. Almost all of the diners had misidentified the majority of the wines. The table of aficionados fell silent.

Of course, the silence lasted a minute or two—at most—before the covering began: “Well, of course the Syrah of that year was quite unusual given the climate,” and, “That producer does have a tendency to over-oak that grape—always disconcerting.” And on, and on.

Being a wino is about liking to drink wine. It’s about drinking what tastes good to you, and enjoying that experience with friends. That’s it. It isn’t about the cost per bottle or speaking intelligently to a fancy label or being an expert. Believe me—I’ve tested it.

I was cruising the wine racks of Our Market on a hot summer day in the 1980’s when Art Buchwald wandered in. Knowing about his stint in Paris for the International Herald Tribune, I thought then: here is just the man to enlighten me about wine selection. I followed him around the racks, always remaining within earshot. Mr. Buchwald approached a clerk, stating that he was expecting a lot of guests over the summer—what would be recommended for wine? The clerk inquired as to what Mr. Buchwald looked for in a bottle. I edged closer. The answer came quickly: “Cheap. They don’t care.”

I should have learned my lesson then. I could have saved a fortune.