Wine You Can Trust

ining at a local restaurant on a recent summer evening we asked the server to describe one of the white wines on the list. “It’s not overly dry,” she said, “and it’s not overly sweet. It’s somewhere in the middle.” Good grief.

For many folks it’s hard enough to navigate the hundreds of different grape varieties, growers, regional characteristics, vintages and more that make up the literal world of wine today. A little help from someone you should be able to count on would be nice. But the experience serves the point of an interesting article in recently on a “simple, usually failsafe means of determining whether or not a foreign wine is worth buying if you are having trouble deciphering the label.” It struck a chord with us and we thought it worth passing along.

First of all, choices in wine are a good thing. If you remember the last time you were offered “red or white,” you know what we mean. Different is interesting. And healthy. If the Slow Food movement has contributed anything to the future of this planet it is the wake-up call to the environmental and agricultural destruction caused by monocultures–the antidote to which is diversity.

Diversity results in choices, and there are more of them today. But there is also more ubiquity, more chaos and much more work required to try to sort out confusing and complex systems. And unfortunately that can result in more people trying to take advantage of the situation–to their benefit.

Wine standards have bled as they’ve been made for mass production. Huge demands for the “hot” wine of the moment– Spanish one year, Australian the next, etc.–have resulted in uneven quality. Many wines are being dumbed down. Some growers–not many, but some–have been cutting corners. Then there’s the occasional scandal such as the recent allegations that some writers for the renowned wine critic Robert Parker have been accepting travel accommodations and lavish parties from wine importers about whom they’re writing. All of which makes buying wine a challenge.

There are a variety of available sources of information about wine, and Parker’s travails notwithstanding, some critics are pretty good. Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher with The Wall Street Journal are down to earth, fair and consistently offer us interesting leads. The New York Times‘ Eric Asimov has pointed us in the right direction.

Which brings us to the piece in Slate. Writer Mike Steinberger says if the label is giving you trouble, “flip the bottle around and see who imported it.” That’s because importers have played a “central, even defining role in the emergence and growth of American wine culture,” says Steinberger.

“Combining impeccable taste with evangelical zeal, people like Kermit Lynch, Robert Chadderdon, Robert Haas and Terry Theise have not only introduced Americans to many of the greatest wines that Europe has to offer, they have helped cultivate several generations of palates,” he writes.

All are great examples. Kermit Lynch is an importer known for his impeccable taste. Locally, Left Bank Wines distributes his products. Terry Theise, in addition to being former L’Etoile proprietor Odessa Piper’s husband, imports wines from Austria as well as small producer Champagnes. Find his wines at Steve’s Liquor.

Of course there are always conditions. Jim Wofford, a Boston wine consultant and distributor, says identifying importers is a smart idea but he adds this caveat–an importer carries the portfolio of the producers, and while the producers are known for good wines there are some years nature doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. So some knowledge of vintages helps. But when the genuine article you’re looking for is a reliable bottle of wine, a list of trusted importers is invaluable. You can find Steinberger’s list at

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to .