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How Should We Rate Wine?

How Should We Rate Wine?

I'm tired of the 100-point scale.

No offense intended towards Robert Parker, Jr., or anyone else who uses the scale. It's a system that is easy to understand, and we're all used to "90-points-plus means it's an 'A,' 80-89 is a 'B,' and anything less is unacceptable" idea. We got used to that in grade school. And regardless of our actual GPA, we've all gotten used to selecting wines that are no less than 88 points on that scale. In fact, when was the last time you saw a wine with a score lower than 86?

There are a couple issues with the system. First of all, a score lower than 86 may as well be a failing grade. I'm certainly not going to buy a wine that has such a low grade, regardless of price point, and I don't know anyone else who would do so, either. We have too many options available with higher published scores! Parker states in his explanation of his rating scale that a wine getting an 80-89 is still "very, very good; many of the wines that fall into this range are often great values as well." But who would buy a $50 bottle that gets less than 90 points? We want to make sure the wine is worth the initial investment. We are more likely to spend money on a bottle that is less pricey with a higher score, even though it might not actually taste better than the $50 89-point wine.

Our decisions have become reliant on those points on the price tag, regardless of how the wine tastes. In my days working at a wine retailer, I would have people come to me, dissatisfied because they had taken home a bottle that had received a 93-point rating--and didn't enjoy it. I was shocked at how many customers were completely reliant on the published score, rather than the description of the aromas and flavors present in the wine, to make their purchasing decisions! Listen, if you like light, crisp, acidic, Chablis-style chardonnay, a rich, heavy, buttery, oaky one is not going to be your favorite bottle, regardless of the 98 points it was awarded by a wine critic. It's just not going to fit your personal tastes.

That is the biggest problem with wine ratings; sure, they are helpful in determining which wines are better quality for their price point, but they have become too important in purchasing decisions. The most important question in wine-tasting is not "What's the score?" It's "Do you like it?" If the answer is yes, keep drinking! If it's no, pick a different wine. Life's too short and there are too many wines available for you to spend time drinking one you don't like.

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Explain Like I'm Five: Antioxidants!

Explain Like I'm Five: Antioxidants!

When I hear about the "health benefits of wine," there are a lot of words that get thrown around that just make me start nodding, glassy-eyed, pretending to know what they mean. Sure, "antioxidant" means something goes... against... oxidants? And that's good?

I felt like I should investigate all these science-y terms so I can actually understand that sort of conversation--and maybe even add to it in a way that doesn't just parrot general health claims. Let's start with a couple widely-discussed elements of wine: antioxidants and polyphenols. We're going to go down a rabbit-hole for a second, so please bear with me.

Antioxidants, per Helmut Seis's 1997 article "Oxidative Stress: Oxidants and Antioxidants" in Experimental Physiology, are "molecules that inhibit the oxdation of other molecules."

Oxdation, in turn, is a chemical reaction that transfers single electrons or hydrogen atoms from one compound (the reducing agent) to another (the oxidizing agent, or oxidant). They are called "oxidants" because their atomic makeup always contains oxygen, which in its natural state has two "open slots" for electrons. This theft of electrons can create free radicals.

Free radicals are molecular compounds that have unbalanced electron pairs (remember in chemistry how two atoms like to share at least two electrons?) and are therefore highly reactive to surrounding compounds. They can cause chain reactions when they start interacting with neighboring molecules, which is damaging or even fatal to cells if not kept in check.

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Coffee and Wine: A Parallel Discovery

I used to stick to sweet drinks; hot chocolate and chai tea lattes (and the occasional apple cider with caramel sauce) were my go-to beverages when I went to "grab a coffee" with my friends. I didn't like the bitterness of coffee, and even when that was my only option, I would put so much milk and sugar in that the drink basically became a slightly tan milkshake. But that began to change about two years ago, when I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. My uncle, who I stayed with when I moved up here, goes to Hawaii on a fairly regular basis, and always brings back bags upon bags of Kona beans. And the man makes a killer cappuccino to boot. Living with him meant dark, milky coffee became a staple in my morning routine, though I would still prefer hot chocolate or chai lattes when grabbing coffee at a shop.

I realized, however, that the reason I disliked coffee was the same reason I didn't initially like the taste of wine. Neither wine nor coffee is sweet, and as a child I became so accustomed to sweetness in my drinks that I was not a fan of anything that didn't fulfill that requirement. I didn't drink a lot of soda growing up, but I love milk and orange juice, which I drank daily during my childhood. Even water was too bland for me; I needed that sweetness in my drink.

There are a lot of people who never get over that need for sweet drinks (and that's not necessarily a vice, as long as you can keep your Diet Coke addiction under control). This preference can be detrimental to their ability to enjoy wine and coffee, however. There's a reason cheap bottles of Moscato, White Zinfandel, Riesling, and half-fermented grape juice like Stella Rosa is so popular--the sugar content is higher in these wines, so people drink them like they're soda. For the same reason, we wolf down pumpkin spice lattes and chocolate-strawberry-double-fudge-caramel macchiatos rather than sitting down to a freshly brewed black coffee. We want that sweetness, and we want it now. The sugar amps up the energy burst we feel 15 minutes after the liquid passes our lips--but man, do we want a refill an hour later!

The biggest hurdle for me in learning to like coffee was the same hurdle I encountered when I started tasting wine. The first wine I ever loved was a fruity Barbera from a winery in Amador County, and though it didn't have the sugary sweetness I craved, it was full of dark chocolate and blackberry flavors, and didn't have the spiky tannins that had made me dislike the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that I'd already tasted. The wine's flavors took center stage in the absence of sweetness, and I was able to enjoy it for the first time. A similar revelation occurred when my friend had me try a fresh cup of Turkish coffee. I had gotten used to Kona coffee, but was still dousing it with milk, and I was not prepared for the acidity, fruitiness, and depth of the dark, gritty coffee coming out of the moka pot.

In retrospect, it's silly that I disliked coffee for so long while my career was focused on a similarly complex, unsweetened beverage. I had learned to appreciate wine for its earthiness, minerality, acidity, and astringent texture, but couldn't see that the same characteristics exist in coffee. With the Turkish coffee, however, I was hooked. Instead of my usual Starbucks chai tea latte, I get a black coffee or espresso from a local shop that carries single origin beans that they've roasted in the last 10 days. I retired my drip machine and have a french press and a hand grinder for the whole beans I now buy regularly. I enjoy the tobacco and caramel and peach and dark berry notes that I smell coming off a fresh cup, and I love checking out the amazing shops that have started popping up around the city. Yes, the caffeine boost is nice, but I now drink coffee for the taste.

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Lightheart Cellars 2012 Santa Clara Colombard

Lightheart Cellars 2012 Santa Clara Colombard

Colombard is one of those wine varietals that isn't talked about a whole lot. It's not a familiar grape to most Americans, and there are only two wineries in California that even produce a Colombard wine! Having tasted the Lightheart Cellars release, though, that small production and relative anonymity should change immediately!

Colombard, as a wine, is not something I have tasted a lot of, so it's hard for me to judge this wine against the hallmarks of the varietal. I can only go off of what I've read about its normal characteristics. In the case of a wine I'm not familiar with, I'll always check out what Karen MacNeil says in The Wine Bible, which is my go-to tome for studying wine basics. Seriously, my copy that I bought used for $6 on Amazon is so full of highlights and notes and notecards that I studied for my sommelier exam, it's a miracle the thing still holds together. However, Colombard doesn't even appear in the pages! We have to go to the Oxford Companion to Wine or Jancis Robinson's Complete Guide to the varietals to find information on the grape. Or, you could take a shortcut and go to Wikipedia. All that will tell you, though, is that Colombard is used as a structure-lending blending wine in California, has dry and sweet variations, and has a nice natural acidity.

While that's helpful, it's WAY more fun to drink the wine than dwell on my lack of knowledge about the grape!

I had this wine with my boyfriend and his housemates during their housemate meeting the other night, and it was great to hear their comments on it mirror my own thoughts. It has a gorgeous acidity (as Wikipedia promised) as well as great Honeycrisp apple and heather flavors. The body is rich and reflective of the deep goldenrod color, but that acidity and light sweetness allow it to stay refreshing instead of bogging you down. There's a reason California producers use this wine to lend structure to their Chardonnays--it's rich and textured, without making the wine a chore to drink.

My favorite comment, though, was from my friend Ross, who is more of a beer and whiskey kind of guy. We both loved the wine's pronounced smokiness. It was so cool to see a white wine mirror Scotch characteristics while maintaining its "wine-ness" that it brought the whole experience to another level. The smokiness coupled well with the honey and heather to make such a decadent and refreshing glass that we were sad to see the bottle empty.

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Embracing the French Conundrum

Warning: Mild scientific language ahead.

As wine drinkers, we have all put some thought toward the impact of wine on our health. Some of us have delved into the vocabulary labyrinth that researching the topic quickly becomes (polyphenols, lipoproteins, and resveratrol, anyone?), while others prefer to stick to the “my doctor recommended one to two glasses of red wine with dinner” method. Leaving most of the intense research to the professionals has been my approach, but one of the prevalent studies that I came across in my Wikipedia-fueled primer on the subject caught my interest: The French Paradox.

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