Awards season is upon us. I’m sort of joking, since awards season seems to be always upon us. From Oscars to James Beard, Nobel and Pritzker, we like to classify and rank and review and celebrate and honor, we like to agree and we like to disagree.

If it seems that more awarding bodies and protocols spring up every day, perhaps that’s a natural response to the glut of information and cultural product we first-worlders face these days. The wheat/chaff situation is getting out of hand.

I’m not immune. There’s a rapidly increasing variety of wines Americans now have access to, and my response is glee tempered by fear. I’m excited to find out about … everything. But I’m afraid of getting crushed by the desire to get a handle on it all. So is everyone, hence the wine-ranking industry, which shows few signs of abating despite the diminishment of über-ranker Robert Parker’s stature for younger generations of wine enthusiasts. Where there are wines, there are lists.

I have some awards of my own to make. They’re not complete, and I don’t claim they’ll help you make sense of 2014 or malbec or Italy or springtime whites. They’re just a collection of notes I’ve compiled as I’ve looked back on the wine-based moments that have given me the greatest pleasure in the past few months.

Best Analogy for the Wrong Way to Learn About Wine: Medical school. A doctor friend of mine recently disclosed to me that in med school, the first subject studied is anatomy. In other words, a dead body, separated into components. This brings about doctors who don’t treat their patients like whole humans. The same is true of too much wine education.

People are taught to look for isolated flavors, aromas, colors, “legs,” and by omission are dissuaded from cultivating, first and foremost, a passionate embrace of wine. Doctors shouldn’t treat cancer; they should treat individuals with cancer. Drinkers shouldn’t focus on the crisp grapefruit flavors in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc; they should try to grok that sauvignon blanc as it enters their life.


Best Single Grape Varietal That Remains Remarkably Good Even Though It Had a “Hip” Phase and Now Might Seem to be Old Hat: Grüner veltliner. Remember 2002, when you first tasted an Austrian grüner and felt like you’d put your finger in the socket? Remember seeing it up and down every halfway decent restaurant wine list, thinking, “Wait, where’d they put all the sauvignon blanc?” Well, grüner is still great. It wasn’t just a trendy match for your big salad. Fresh and young, grüner brings out the best in vegetable and bean dishes, or grilled fish. With a few years of bottle age, the wines take on terrific complexity, and express a richness and settled calm their younger selves never implied.

Greatest Quality-to-Label Art Ratio: Plungerhead Lodi Zinfandel ($15). There seems to be a law on the books that 85 percent of all zinfandels must have offensive and/or stupid labels. Plungerhead obeys. With a phony cut-out art picture of a guy who’s got a toilet plunger for a crown and wine barrels for pantaloons, the label is like a jokey concert flier you’d find on a lamppost in 1986. But the wine is irresistible, a full pleasure. It’s not got any of the right bona fides – organic, natural, native yeast, estate-grown – yet it tastes remarkably fresh and alive, at a low (for zin) alcohol listing of 14.5 percent. It’s got true zin hallmarks: spice, cola, molasses, toasted nuts, that wild, brambly Californian feel. I like a lot of zins a lot more. But none at this price, and none that so ably dismantle the first impression left by their label.

Grape Varietal Most Consistently Able to Express Unique Flavors and Textures: Nerello mascalese. The cultures and foods of Sicily speak Italian but are marked by so many other influences – Middle Eastern, North African, Spanish – that the island ought to be considered its own nation. The wines are similarly fascinating, and similarly communicate a melting-pot sort of authenticity. Many grapes are planted on the island, but on the active volcano Mount Etna, nerello mascalese rules. What a thrilling grape. It tends to lead to deep and tannic wines, but always with a fresh red-fruit tartness and transparency that say “Gulp me.”

Most of Italy’s great reds gain their greatness from a deep, earthy strength. Nerello mascalese makes great red wine in an entirely different register, transmitting the intense mineral quality of its volcanic subsoil with a high-toned, almost carefree lightness. Whether from provocative minimalist innovators like Frank Cornelissen, firm classicists like Val Cerasa, broad pleasers like Tascante or thrill-a-minute daredevils like Passopisciaro, nerello mascalese will haunt you in the best possible ways.

Best Reason Not to Drink Wine: Cider. High-quality hard ciders dramatize similar conflicts and resolutions that wines do, between acidity and fruit, tannin and softness, bitter and sweet, flowers and earth, plants and minerals. The categories overlap, but the specifics knock your known quantities out of you, erase the vocabulary you’ve grown comfortable with, and invite rekindled attention and wonder. Ciders from Asturias in Spain, Normandy in France, and an increasing number of small producers in New England are terrifically complex.

Their subtlety and structure invite many happy experiences at the dinner table, and their low alcohol makes the whole endeavor a lot easier to pursue.


Most Distant Front-Runner in Its Class: Montenidoli Tradizionale Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($19). Vernaccia is the predominant white wine grape in Tuscany, specifically from San Gimignano. Tourists, drunk on the Tuscan mystique, toss back vernaccia and think it’s good, but it usually isn’t. They return to their home countries, seek out wines from vernaccia to remind them of their magical trip, and are usually disappointed.

Montenidoli’s is not just the best vernaccia in San Gimignano, it holds the top eight places; the second-best vernaccia is ninth, at best. It is a complete, beautiful, settled, supple, dry wine, and everything insipid, skin-deep, fruit-salad-with-a-spritz-of-lemon vernaccia is not. Long maceration on the grapes’ thick skins and slow fermentation with native yeast yields a tour through the best of wine: the minerals of Chablis, the savoriness of fino sherry, the mouthfeel of Puligny or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the luxury of Sauternes. Be careful with this, as with all experiences that bring you into truth, for afterwards you will notice much more that is false.

Best Guidebook: “Natural Wine – An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally,” by Isabelle Legeron. First published last year in London, this is far from the best-written book about wine, neither comprehensive nor profound. But it is well organized, easy for anyone to read, and useful. And it is crucial, for however you feel about the “natural wine movement,” if you drink wine you should know about the choices that go into its production. Indeed, if you care at all about the future of the planet and the dramatic changes in store for our food systems, this book is an essential directory. It is organized into sections on farming, taste, health, wine faults and legal issues, and ends with a long list of interesting producers who try to work in harmony with nature.

Enormous cultural changes are afoot in the way a younger generation of vintners is approaching the ancient practices of viticulture and vinification, and we all ought to become familiar with the terminology, the issues at stake, the controversies, the causes for concern.

Most Succinct Encapsulation of How American and European Wines Express Themselves Differently: A French winemaker told me, “In America, you think 100 years is a long time, and 100 miles is a short distance. In France, we think the opposite.”

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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