Last time I introduced you to a new wine book by my blogger friend Jon Thorsen. As I mentioned, I enjoyed reading Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank. I think it’s a good reference for people who want to learn a little about wine but don’t know where to begin, and who don’t want to spend too much money doing it, either.
I met Jon in 2011 at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference. His blog was in its first year, and was nominated for the Best New Wine Blog award. We spent pretty much a whole day together, since we were herded onto the same bus going to a couple of wineries for tastings and meals.
I have enough difficulty putting out a blog post every week or two. I was impressed to learn that Jon is a father of three, has a demanding job, and still manages to post several times a week to tens of thousands of readers. And whether he realized it or not initially, his writing style easily adapted to book form. As we learned at one of our conference seminars, getting a book deal is probably still the best way of monetizing a blog. So those years of blogging for nothing are beginning to pay off – and I have to say, all jealousy aside, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
[Full disclosure, and switching over to reviewer mode: Thorsen has reviewed three First Vine selections and liked them all. Naturally, I’m predisposed to like him, his blog, and his book. But this isn’t logrolling, as you’ll read later on.]
Here’s some backstory. Six years or so ago, Thorsen and his wife Brenda decided to add wine to their diets for health reasons. They didn’t know anything about wine other than that they liked it, but quickly realized that the $15-$25 per bottle they thought they’d have to spend to get something good wouldn’t fit into their budget. Especially buying three or four bottles a week.
So they bought mostly wines costing less than $15 and almost always under $20, and tried them with and without food, keeping track of how they tasted the day after opening. Word got out, especially since this was post-2008 and everyone was looking to spend less money.
Their effort grew into the Reverse Wine Snob blog when Thorsen, an economist by training and a market research analyst by profession, decided to create a value index. His taste rating accounts for 75% of the total, from 1-10. Price makes up 25%, also 1-10 but in reverse order: anything $20 and above starts at a 1 rating, going up to a 10 rating for a bottle costing less than $6.
The result is a value rating from 1 to 10. Wines with a value rating of 7 to 7.5 are labelled Recommended. Highly Recommended wines score 7.8 to 8, and anything 8.3 and over gets a Bulk Buy designation. 6.0 to 6.9 is a transitional category – the wine is worth another look. $18+ wines that taste great fall into this range, as do what you might call D- to D+ wines in terms of taste that are very inexpensive. Anything below 6.0 is a Skip It wine.
Thorsen told me these categories are pretty much what most readers look at first, before deciding to read more about the wine itself in his reviews. The reviews are generally short and have a little wine jargon to them despite the everyman approach. All of it is well- defined, though, and becomes a kind of shorthand, which is how it ought to be.
The book contains reviews for a worldwide spectrum of wines and so it’s a good start for a novice looking to try a range of recommended wines from all over. There are also individual chapters for store-label brands from Costco and Trader Joe’s, which Thorsen likes for their value. I haven’t tried any of these wines myself, but would be more inclined to now that I have some recommendations. (This isn’t because I look down my nose at either Costco or Trader Joe’s, it’s that both of them require a planned car trip if I’m going to carry wine home. And since I’m in the wine business with plenty of wine at home, and have pretty much everything else I need within short walking distance, I try not to make those trips if I don’t have to.)
Now for something I’m less happy with, although I don’t think it will detract from most people’s enjoyment. As a wine merchant, I’m not the intended audience for this book, so you can take these points with that caveat in mind.
First, it’s the “Snob” word. I introduced my last post with part of Thorsen’s thoughts on wine snobs – people who feel compelled to share their opinions that focus on more expensive wines being better than less expensive ones. As I said before, I don’t know any wine lover who isn’t looking for great, inexpensive wines. No doubt these people exist, but the problem is that the word snob has now been co-opted for anyone who enjoys more expensive wines as a matter of course, even if they don’t make judgments on what other people like. This book doesn’t address that particular issue, which is unfortunate. I understand that Thorsen wants to redirect the enthusiasm for wine shown by the so-called snobs to wines in a lower price range, hence the name Reverse Wine Snob. Fair enough.
But reading over his tenets of Reverse Wine Snobbery, I think it still comes off hard on people who genuinely like more expensive wine. For example, one of the tenets is that you should drink what you like. (Something that pretty much every wine critic and wine guide recommends, actually.) But since people are uncertain about their choices in a crowded wine market, they turn to “experts.” These experts don’t agree, often wildly, and so they’re not reliable. Thorsen also cites studies of how people can’t pick out expensive wines in tastings, so more expensive wines aren’t better a priori, which as I said before, I don’t think most people believe anyway. This also tacitly reinforces the idea that people who like more expensive wines are snobs, although Thorsen doesn’t try to do this himself.
I addressed part of these issues last time, and why anyone can disagree on the taste of a wine, even from one hour to the next. But I have a further thought — I’m not sure why wine experts (or wine critics) are held to a higher standard than critics in general. Movie critics often disagree with one another, yet people don’t think that they shouldn’t read movie reviews or that movie criticism should be ignored. The reader will have to decide if he or she agrees with the critic.
The same is true here. Thorsen is a wine reviewer, and he definitely has a point of view. He doesn’t try to hide it, but after talking about the unreliability of wine writing it’s also not clear why you should trust him more than any other wine critic – other than that you’ll likely spend less money deciding if you agree with him than you might with others.
As I said, I approach the subject of wine a little differently than Thorsen, because I make my living selling wine to all kinds of customers. At the same time, though, we both have a soft spot for less-expensive wines. Half of First Vine’s selections cost less than $15, and two-thirds are under $20. (Most of the over-$20 bottles are champagne). I’m happy to have more recommendations of wines to try when I don’t feel like drinking First Vine wines but want to stick to the same budget.
I’ve bought a few new cookbooks recently and have been trying new recipes. One of the books is More Mexican Every Day by Rick Bayless. The first Mexican Every Day has probably a half-dozen recipes I use regularly, and I really like it. This new volume is good too, but some of the recipes are more involved. I made a pork tenderloin with roasted tomatillo salsa and it was great, but I’m also lucky to have tomatillos available just around the corner.
Cy and I were visiting family in Brooklyn and, believe it or not, there were no tomatillos at the local grocery store. (And here I thought hipster food rules meant you could get anything everywhere in Brooklyn…) So I decided to doctor up some green salsa from a jar instead, and make the recipe with chicken thighs instead of pork (chicken is also a variation Bayless recommends).
Doctoring up the salsa is easy if you have a grill or broiler – char some poblano peppers, slices of onion, whole, unpeeled garlic cloves, and a couple of jalapeño or serrano peppers. Put the charred poblanos in a bowl covered with plastic wrap to steam them, when they’re cool peel off the blackened skin and set them aside. Stem the chiles and peel the garlic, then blend them up with the onion and some chicken or vegetable stock. Add this to the jarred salsa and simmer it all together. Then brown the chicken thighs and add the reduced salsa mixture, along with the poblanos you’ve cut up. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through. You can serve it as a stew, with rice, or use it as a taco filling. Top it with any number of ingredients depending on what you have and what you like. Some jarred green salsa is a little sweet – so be sure to taste it, and add a little cider vinegar if you need it to get that nice tang you normally find in tomatillos.
You might be tempted to reach for a beer, but try Château de Clapier Luberon White ($13). It’s a mixture of Roussanne, White Grenache, and Vermentino. Crisp enough to take the heat but it also matches up nicely with the acidity of the tomatillos and the green flavors of the peppers. If you want a red wine that Jon Thorsen also liked, try the Calligrappe Red ($12), also from Château de Clapier. It’s a mixture of Grenache and Syrah, and its earthiness pairs well with chiles.
10 to 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (depending on how many you find to a package) 2 15-18 ounce jars medium-hot tomatillo salsa
1 large onion, peeled and cut into thick slices
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
3 medium or 2 large poblano chiles (use regular green bell peppers if you can’t find poblanos)
2 jalapeño or serrano peppers
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Optional toppings: diced avocado, diced tomato, chopped onion, cilantro, fresh lime juice, queso fresco
Place an oven rack in the highest position and preheat the broiler. Put the poblanos, serranos, garlic cloves, and onion slices on a baking sheet. Broil until everything is nicely charred, turning as needed. Take out the onion, garlic and small peppers when they’re ready – the poblanos may need more time.
While the vegetables are broiling, heat a film of vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large saucepan. When shimmering, add the jarred salsa and stir for a minute while it boils. Turn down the head and simmer the salsa to reduce it by about a third.
When the vegetables are charred, immediately put the poblanos in a bowl and cover the bowl with a towel or with plastic wrap. Let cool. Let the other vegetables cool a couple of minutes, then peel the garlic and cut the stem off the small chiles. Put them in a blender or food processor along with the onion slices and the chicken or vegetable stock. Blend up until just a little chunky. Pour this mixture in with the reduced salsa, and reduce again by about a third. Taste it for salt and also to see if it needs a little vinegar to get a nice tang. If so, add the cider vinegar about ½ teaspoon at a time until it tastes the way you like it. Cover the salsa to keep it warm.
Peel the blackened skin off the cooled poblanos and carefully cut out the seed pod and stem. Roughly chop the poblanos and set them aside. While the sauce is reducing, cut the chicken thighs into 1-inch pieces. Dry the pieces, salt them, then heat more vegetable in a large deep skillet or Dutch oven. Brown the chicken pieces all over – you will probably have to do this in batches. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate or bowl as they brown. Pour the reduced salsa into the skillet and scrape up the bottom to incorporate any brown chicken bits. Add the chicken and the chopped poblanos, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked. Taste for salt and vinegar. Serve with any or all of the toppings.