Berger on Wine: How good company can make any wine taste good

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Thirty-odd years ago I was dining with good friend, who was an East Coast wine merchant. An hour earlier, he had spent an outrageous sum on a case of a famous wine at an auction.

We talked about the greatest wines he had tasted. Later I asked him, “So, what was the worst wine?”

Amused by the query, he thought for a while, then replied, ”A 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” referring to one of the greatest red Burgundies of all time. I asked what was wrong with it.

“Oh, the wine was great,” he said. “The problem was, I had it at an event where I hated everyone at my table.” He said he couldn’t appreciate that wine at that event.

I’ve experienced similar disappointments that illustrate the myriad ways extraneous elements can alter your perception of wine, like a bad cold, an excessively hot room, an uncomfortable chair or a pair of too-tight shoes. Little irritants, big drawbacks.

The main objective of almost any wine is giving pleasure. And we can’t assist a wine’s manifest destiny unless we give it a chance to prove its worth by providing it a proper setting.

For most wine consumers, this means an odor-free venue, a sound bottle and jocular people to share it. Wine is the beverage of conversation, I have found. It need not always be fabulous, world-class, expensive, iconic or dramatic.

Obviously, for me, this isn’t about the wine. I don’t believe in scoring wines by number and then buying only those that score 92 points or more. We drink a lot of lower-point wines that make some of the 100s taste like swill.

Nor do I fret over the stemware being used. I’ll drink wine out of a Dixie cup if the alternative is no wine at all.

And I don’t need someone telling me that a particular red wine needs 43 minutes and 22 seconds of aeration to reach its peak of enjoyment. (Decades ago the late Vogue wine writer Martin Gersch did exactly that: he used a stopwatch to time every red wine he evaluated – and then published his results!)

Nor is it about how the béarnaise was “slightly broken,” the asparagus a bit undercooked, or the host’s shirt and tie unmatched. (But I do believe in the statement, “No shirt, no shoes, no wine.”)

I try to enjoy wine the way we enjoy friends. It means accepting foibles.

Not every “great” wine tastes great at every event. And many humble wines are fine. The latter case is a lot more likely with good friends, beloved family members, and especially good humor.

I don’t anger when a wine is served too warm. I just put in a small ice cube— or a frozen, plastic water-filled ice cube. When a Riesling or other white is served too cold, I just cradle the glass in my hands for a while until I can smell the wine’s aroma.

Badly conceived food-wine pairings can make for strange experiences but have their own charms. About 1983, I attended a media luncheon to showcase the white wines of Alsace and how they went perfectly with Alsace foods.

The problem was this: the chef never had a chance to taste the wines before creating the menu. The list he was given had on it two Rieslings, which he assumed were sweet. “They were Rieslings, after all,” he said later. But most Alsace Rieslings are very dry.

As a result of his incorrect assumption, the dishes were sweet. And the bone-dry, austere Rieslings clashed horribly with his food. So I pushed the food aside and enjoyed the wines with bread and butter.

Good wine experiences start with good settings and people who appreciate good moments with a smile. Grumbling turns even the best and most joyous wines lugubriously sullen.

Discovery of the Week: 2018 Allen Scott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($15) – This most amazing sauvignon blanc has just hit U.S. store shelves, even though it is just a few months from the end of fermentation. The aroma is astoundingly floral, almost impossible to achieve in this grape. And although the taste is succulent and tropical in nature, its remarkable balance of good acidity and richness make it instantly likable now, and it surely will be interesting to see it in a year, when it releases some of its underlying herbal characteristics.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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