Wine Know-How for the Rest of Us: A Q&A with Mark Oldman

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Photo by Amy Fletcher
When you're not a wine connoisseur it's refreshing to have someone explain wine to you without pretense and with humor, instead of turning their nose up when you struggle to pronounce gewürztraminer.

Mark Oldman, the author of Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine, taught a seminar on pairing comfort foods with wine during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival that was fun, witty and approachable. So of course it left us wanting more of his wine wisdom.

Oldman started his career in wine in 1990 when he founded the Stanford Wine Circle. He has been teaching about wine for 19 years. Aside from writing Oldman's Guide, which won the Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book of the Year Award, he co-founded and ran career website, Vault.com, until 2007 when it sold. Now working on his second book, he took some time to chat with Short Order.

New Times: In your book you say wines with hard-to-pronounce names are one of the reasons people are intimidated by wine. Is it just easier to stay away from these wines?

Mark Oldman: Au contraire: instead of avoiding tongue twisters, one should seek them out like a carnivore stalks flesh. Because they tend to be less popular, hard-to-pronounce wines are where value (and new taste sensations) reside. Overcoming the fear of mispronouncing wine names is so vital to wine appreciation that I devoted an entire seminar to it at last year's Aspen Food & Wine Classic; I titled the classes "Hard to Say, Easy to Drink." My forthcoming book will have hundreds of wine pronunciations peppered throughout it, and there are also an increasing number of free sites online that provide written and audio pronunciations of wine words.

There are so many options out there. What are some tips to sort through it all? Say, how do I pick a good Sauvignon Blanc off a shelf with 20 choices?

Even grape nuts like myself often rely on the expertise of others when choosing wine. If I'm presented with a confounding array of choices in a shop or a restaurant, I seek the advice of someone who works there - that is, so long as they seem unpretentious and knowledgeable (which is far more likely today than it was just a decade ago). After all, they are in the best position to know exactly which of their bottles are producing the ooh's and aah's.

If you're specifically seeking Sauvignon Blanc, you can't beat the "Savvies" from New Zealand. They offer one of the best quality-to-price ratios in all of wine and are blissfully reliable and abundant in the marketplace. When I was in Miami recently for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, I ordered a Babich Sauvignon Blanc at Joe's Stone Crab and was rewarded with the mouthwatering herbal-citric snap that makes this wine so consistently agreeable; happily, it was one of the least expensive wines on the list and is only about $10 in stores. Paired with Joe's sweet crab claws and crispy-creamy hashed browns, it created a gastronomic experience of orgiastic intensity.

Do wine glasses really matter?

All you really need is two types: an all-purpose glass and a Champagne flute. When selecting the former, I tell my students that they need only imagine Forrest Gump: thin, big, and simple. A glass with a thin rim will focus your attention on the wine instead of the glass; it's no fun to drink glass. The bowl of the glass should hold at least 12 ounces, large enough to concentrate the wine's vapors so that you can get a good sniff. I'm currently using Spiegelau's Vino Vino Bordeaux Glass, which is a commodious 22 ounces and rings up at $10 per glass for a set of four. This brings up the third point: keep it simple, as glasses need not be expensive or intricately etched. Direct any excess funds towards additional bottles of wine, not towards pricey, ornate glasses that have a funny way of shattering when the wind blows the wrong way.

If you were to pick one wine to drink right now, what would it be and why?

With springtime almost upon us, my thoughts turning to Torrontés, which is Argentina's most popular white and is just starting to gain traction on American shores. I love it because it smells tropical but drinks dry: it is both floral and invigorating, like crocuses peeking up through the snow. Many good versions, like those from Norton and Trivento, can be had for just a ten-spot.

You're coming out with another book in the fall, Oldman's Brave New World of Wine. How will it differ from Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine?

As my students and readers know, my bliss is to provide people with easily-implemented nuggets of wine wisdom, and in the forthcoming Oldman's Brave New World of Wine, I focus on helping folks move beyond the usual suspects of wine that so many of us -- from casual imbibers to connoisseurs - seem to be stuck on. The past seventeen months have seen me holed up in deep hibernation, dreaming up new and, I hope, scintillating ways of expanding peoples vinous arsenals. The other day I joked with my editor extraordinaire, Amy Cherry, that I've been brewing up all sorts of innovations deep within "Oldman Labs." The result of all of this will be published by W.W. Norton this September.

Check Oldman's website for excerpts from the book coming soon.


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