Food & Drink

Let It Pour: A toast to Michael Steinberger’s new book

Once in a while, someone writes a book about wine that’s so great I wander around for weeks wishing it had been me. This time, the author is Michael Steinberger, and the book is “The Wine Savant,” published this month.

Wine lovers who love to read about wine are familiar with Steinberger. He was Slate’s wine columnist until 2011 and a James Beard award winner. He delights in stepping on toes, from bashing the White House for serving $250-per-bottle wine at the 2008 emergency economic summit to looking down his nose at Sauvignon blanc.

In “The Wine Savant,” Steinberger serves up tons of useful tips for how to grow as a student of the grape, delivered in a casual style. It’s how you imagine the conversation would go if you sat down with this guy, let him choose a couple of bottles that you were picking up the tab on, and listened to him tell how to get smarter about wine.

One of my favorite chapters is “How to Buy Wine.” Millions of words have been spilled on this topic, and few add up to anything useful to the average wine drinker. Steinberger puts it all together in 17 quick pages. He echoes the call of many forward-thinking wine critics to give the Robert Parker/“Wine Spectator” 100-point scale the heave-ho. Steinberger argues not against all wine rating systems, just the Parker scale, because, “It gives a pseudo-objective gloss to what is an almost wholly subjective exercise.”

No critic, he says, would be able to assign the same score to the same bottle on a different tasting. That’s not to say that assessing wines isn’t useful, but to boil that down to a number that can then be stuck on a shelf label and waved like a flag cheapens the process.

So, what does Steinberger recommend? For one thing, when you walk into a wine shop, pay attention to how warm it is inside. The ideal storage temperature for wine is about 55 degrees. If the store isn’t a little on the chilly side, the wine is probably too hot.

And, he says, don’t be overly concerned about vintage. Pay more attention to the producer. A good producer is going to make great wines in an average year, and even better wines in an even better year. But Steinberger says improved winemaking techniques and warmer, more consistent growing seasons mean most years are good ones.

“It now takes something truly cataclysmic – think biblical, think locusts and frogs – to ruin an entire harvest.” Rather than scores and vintages, learn to recognize importers who have solid track records for finding good wine and getting it to shelves of a seller you find reliable.

The book is filled with this kind of specific advice, the sort that offered me several moments of clarity and relief as I read it. But it also held some fun, anti-establishment rants that I enjoyed for their subversive tenor. His dismissal of American consumers’ fervent hope that wine is a health food was among them.

For decades, scientists have been studying the health benefits of wine, and evidence suggests drinking red wine in moderation might boost good cholesterol, fight blood clots, delay the aging process and possibly even enhance erectile function.

Steinberger does not spend a lot of time on the science behind the claims but succinctly explains why people obsessed with the potential health benefits of wine are missing the point.

Wine is “a relaxant, a stimulant, a balm. It can make a bad day good and a good one better. All this, coupled with the gustatory pleasure that wine confers, ought to be reason enough to uncork a bottle.”

While the entire book is worth any wine lover’s time, that paragraph alone made me wish I had written it myself.

Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.

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