Has Tom Stevenson Written the World’s Most Useful Wine Buying Guide?

Tom Stevenson, Buy the Right Wine Every Time: The no-fuss no-vintage wine guide. Sterling Epicure, 2014.

Has Tom Stevenson written the world’s most useful wine buying guide? Well it depends upon which part of the wine world you are talking about. If you are trying to figure out which of the famous Classification of 1855 first-growth Bordeaux wines to lay down to drink in 2034 or to buy en primeur for future auction sale, then no. This is not the book for you. It will do  you absolutely no good. Save your money!

If, on the other hand, you live in the world of the beginning or early-intermediate wine consumer, then this just might be the best book I have seen for you. And it comes from an unlikely author, because I associate Tom Stevenson more with the rarefied atmosphere of the one percent than the gritty world of the 99 percent (he’s an expert on fine Champagne, for example, and writes for The World of Fine Wine) .

White Zinfandel? Really? (Well, Why Not?)

Reading the preface, Stevenson seems to be as surprised as the rest of us. “When I started this project,” he writes, “I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I would end up recommending the likes of White Zinfandel or Blossom Hill, let alone White Zinfandel from Blossom Hill.”

The trick, which is difficult to pull off, is to simplify without dumbing-down. Stevenson’s method is to begin by breaking down the world of wine according to certain styles and grape varieties. So far so conventional. Then, within each category, he recommends a short list of wines that meet his three criteria. First, he likes them. You might disagree with his taste because de gustibus is after all non disputandum,  but telling people to try wines that you like makes more sense that pointing them towards stuff that you think they should like.

The second criterion is that the wine must be pretty widely available and not the invisible or imaginary wines that some critics like to praise. Then, finally, the wines must be consistent from year to year so that vintage isn’t the critical factor. Yes, I know this rules out most Red Burgundy wines, but so be it in Stevenson’s book (to be fair, he does actually list a couple of Red Burgundy wines, however.) Beginners have enough trouble finding wines they enjoy without the added complication of vintages, he suggests. Save this for the more advanced wine drinkers. A limiting constraint, but not an unreasonable idea given the target audience.

And so you begin by looking for a style you like or would like to try, Then you find lists of wines in “recommended,” “highly recommended” and “to die for” categories, with rough price ranges supplied. Head to the supermarket or wine shop with this list and you will probably find something to try — or at least that’s the idea.

Onward and Upward

What if you like the wine once you get home? Well, here is where Stevenson earns his pay. The main part of the book is a collection of profiles of the specific wines he recommends along with “next step” recommendations for each one. Did you enjoy that Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel? What to try something more intense and of better quality? Look for a bottle of Ravenswood Lodi Old Vines Zin! Want something better but a bit less intense? Go for a single vineyard Zinfandel from Ridge. Want to try something completely different in this vein? Look for red wines from Croatia or Primativo from Puglia.

You can argue with the criteria, you can argue with the ratings and you can argue with the specific recommendations — as economists like to say, it is disgusting not to dispute — but I think it is hard to argue with this as a way for people to move forward in their appreciation of wine. Imagine a wine tasting club that took this book as their guide for weekly tasting. I think they could rather effectively advance their appreciation of wine within a year without breaking the collective budget — and this strategy could be successful even in parts of America that because of regulatory constraints are poorly served by the wine retail trade.

There are lots of surprises here until you stop and think and then they make sense. There are a disproportionate number of Washington State wines recommended, for example, which makes sense since they are very both good (Stevenson must like them) and widely distributed. Lots of wines by “big vat” producers like Gallo, too. The Cabernet Sauvignon list includes Alamos, Louis Martini, Gallo Family Vineyards, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf brands, all of which come from the Gallo portfolio.  And a great many wines from Australia, just to remind you that while these wines may have fallen from fashion a bit but they continue to be both good to drink and good values.

Dead Ends, First Steps, More Surprises

I was also surprised to find Stevenson did not list any top-rated “to die for” wines in some categories and then  left out the merely “recommended” category in others. The reason? Well I suppose that the real “too die for” Sauvignon Blancs are either too hard to find or too subject to vintage variation. On the other hand, there are so many great and reliable Riesling wines in the market (starting with the “to die for” selections: Pewsey Vale The Contours and Jacob’s Creek Steingarten) that there is no reason to dip down below the “Highly Recommended” part of the list (indeed, the inexpensive Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling listed here is a mighty nice glass of wine!).

So what about that unexpected recommendation of the Blossom Hill White Zinfandel? It’s a perfectly decent wine, Stevenson writes, technically well made and consistent — no reason why someone shouldn’t drink it if they like that style. But then they should take a few steps up or over and see what they think. Maybe try a Kir made with Moscato DdAsti with a bit of Cassis for color if you want something more intense. Or perhaps try a dry Rosé from the Rhone or a Rosado from Navarro if you’d like a bit more elegance. Something different? How about Riesling?

Seen in this way, the White Zin isn’t so much a dead end destination as the first step on a journey. And Stevenson gives you the  outline of  a map to guide you. Who knows where it could lead?

I was surprised by this book — very pleasantly surprised as you can probably tell — and I am happy to recommend it. It would make a great gift for that younger or newer wine drinker in your family or group. And you might enjoy reading it yourself before gifting it on.

Has Tom Stevenson written the best wine guide ever? Can’t say — it’s too much a matter of taste and circumstance. But it is a very useful addition to the wine guide bookshelf.

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2 responses

  1. The Stevenson book sounds good and will read. However, as “the best wine guide ever”, I think Robin Goldstein et al’s annual “The Wine Trials” will surely give it a run for the top spot.

    Goldstein’s book starts with 75 concise pages on all there is to know about wines: blind tasting results, how people decide what wines to buy, etc.

    Following that introduction, Goldstein gives you “the 175 wines under $15 that beat the $50+ bottles….”

  2. Thanks for another great write up, Mike. Stevenson for the guide as well, which, given where the world of wine has come from (and still sits in mostly), should benefit many consumers.

    What intrigues me is what comes next. The evolution from trying wines others suggest, to wines with a high probability we will enjoy them. This, afterall, is the key objective behind Buy The Right Wine Every Time.

    As you rightly indicate in your article, one’s taste is very unique. So without deep understanding of one’s preferences, to start with, combined with clarity on whether the next bottle matches those preferences, how can one ever go from trying to knowing? That extra level of confidence most of us would appreciate when choosing our next wine.

    One can always lean back on the habit of enjoying ‘experiencing new things’ and ‘the element of surprise’, but is that not a route that has often disappointed a wine buyer and that perhaps stood the test of time for lack of an alternative? Stevenson’s book is a great step towards addressing this issue.

    Surely there will always be that one person who tries a new wine first, because of their knowledge and desire to explore. But for the majority of consumers who walk the aisles staring at labels and price tags (the latter is unavoidable), what if advanced technology matched them with wines that align well, based on their past tastings, with their likes and preferences captured with good, useful detail?

    We recently launched the Quini wine tasting, rating and personal recommendations app (www.QuiniWine.com), which, among other key opportunities, tackles this issue. Wine experts and scientists, PhDs in food science, sensory evaluation and statistics were involved. It’s a major undertaking with backing by CMF (Canada Media Fund). Fun technology that captures a wine taster’s preferences in meaningful detail to take recommendations accuracy to a whole new level.

    The combination of books like Stevenson’s, and technology like Quini are the seeds to a shift in wine consumer habits, and expectations.

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