We’re all like Olivia Pope when it comes to wine

I'm not sure what the medal on the bottom is all about, but this is a good and interesting wine book.

I’m not sure what the medal on the bottle is all about, but this is a good and interesting wine book.

A couple of months ago I was asked to review a book about wine. Not even an e-book like I usually get, but a genuine soft-cover copy. Tom Stevenson’s Buy the Right Wine Every Time — The No-Fuss No-Vintage Wine Guide is an interesting read and presents a lot of good information and wine reviews in an easily understandable format.

But first you have to get past the very loud front and back cover. The cutesy copy on the back (more about that here) proclaims that it’s for people who “drink wine but don’t think wine,” and who “prefer to stick to the types of wine [they] know.” With Stevenson’s help, they’ll get “instant professional guidance so [they’ll] buy the right wine every time.”

Fortunately, the contents are less bombastic (and have fewer italics). I think it fits its niche well. But reading the book got me thinking about how people learn about unfamiliar subjects in a time when so much information is available almost instantly. Would those wine newbies even buy this book?

So I decided to do a little informal research. I asked about 20 wine drinkers, friends and customers plus a few fellow bloggers all of different ages, how they learned what they know about wine. They have varying degrees of wine knowledge. Everything from “I know what I like but not much more than that” to earning certificates in wine education or sommelier-dom.

The one thing they all told me was that someone got them interested in wine. Whether it was just by pouring a glass and the light going on in the newbie’s head, and maybe providing him or her with a few basic wine facts that carried them forward whether or not they decided to learn more. It might have been a family member, a friend, or maybe a person working in a restaurant or wine shop.

If you watched Season 3 of Scandal on television, you saw this play out almost to the letter. In a flashback, Olivia Pope is having dinner with her father and he offers her wine. She says she doesn’t really like wine, and he replies something to the effect of her not yet having tried good stuff. So she tries it (along with some fabulous dish her father prepared) and likes it. Her father writes down the address of a wine shop and tells her to ask for a particular person there. (Then he makes the mistake of giving her the pen he wrote with, which leads to all sorts of mayhem, but that’s another story…) We know it clicked because the one thing she always has in her hand when she’s alone (other than her phone) is a glass of red wine.  Sometimes she even drinks it straight from the bottle.

After that first positive encounter, though, people took off in different directions.  Books and classes for some, playing it by ear and relying on friends or good wine shop staff for others. (I’m not sure about Olivia Pope. She likes to know everything she can so perhaps she sought out more info, or maybe she’s still just relying on her wine shop because they know what she likes.)

That's our Olivia -- glass or bottle in hand, sad expression on her face...we've all been there, right?

That’s our Olivia — glass or bottle in hand, sad expression on her face…we’ve all been there, right?

The divide seems to be less generational than about mindset, at least for wine. People who are research-oriented seemed to turn to books for at least some information no matter what their ages. They may also rely on internet sources, but they own at least one or two of the well-known guides for wine. Less research-y people don’t necessarily, and they may or may not look online for info, but they usually continue to rely on friends and wine shops for wine advice.

This second group is the book’s target audience. Stevenson sought out wines that are widely-available in most non-specialty wine shops and supermarkets with reasonably good wine selections. He asked the producers to provide him with at least a few different vintages of each wine. Then he selected the ones with consistent flavor across the years and rated them in three categories: recommended, highly recommended, and to die for.

The book is indexed in the front by wine grapes, country/style (like Rhône reds and rosés), and attributes like aromatics and sweetness.   So if you already know what kinds of wines you like you can skip to them right away. Then for the nitty-gritty. For each wine, Stevenson answers four questions: What it is, what it tastes like, what else should you try if you like it, and what to try if you want something completely different. There’s also a price indication from one to three dollar signs.

Let me say it again, I HATE this back cover.  As much as I liked the book, if I hadn't promised to read it I would have put it aside just looking at it.

Let me say it again, I HATE this back cover. If I hadn’t promised to read the book I would have put it aside just looking at it.

On the whole, it’s very useful and interesting. The introduction has helpful information about wine, but not too much. And the 20 wine tips at the end are good ones, about storing wine and choosing wine glasses and such. What I like is that for newbies there’s enough information for people who are even a little bit curious to try types of wines they may not have had before. Or if they know they like Pinot Noir, they can try two Pinots — one listed as recommended and the other as highly recommended — and figure out why they’re different and whether price is a good indicator of which one they like better.

This may be stuff that many of us have figured out, whether through instruction, reading, or just tasting. But even if you’re more expert, you can still get valuable information from the book. We’ve all been in the situation where we’re in an unfamiliar place or somewhere with only middling wine shops and want to have a reasonably nice bottle of wine. We’ve all found readily-available go-to wines for those times. Stevenson’s book gives us a lot more to choose from — and wines we might not have considered before. I know I’ll enjoy trying some of them.

Of course, I can’t leave you without some quibbles. As I mentioned before, the back cover is extremely off-putting and would totally make me skip the book if I hadn’t promised to read it. (I’m not a book seller, so perhaps I’m just being touchy about this.) And while Stevenson’s gentle-yet-authoritative style might inspire confidence in some people, the fact remains that he’s a professional wine reviewer and writer with opinions you might not agree with. (You don’t write “twenty-three critically acclaimed titles” on wine — as the back cover informs us — without opinions. Every wine reviewer has styles he or she prefers.) The “instant professional guidance” in the book comes with a point of view.   The implication in the packaging is that it’s for the everyman, but you’ll still have to try a few bottles to see if you share that point of view.

As I said at the beginning, though, I wonder if this book will reach the intended audience. I couldn’t help thinking it would make a great app — even one we had to pay for. That would certainly help for those times we’re in a hurry for a good bottle but in an unfamiliar place. It could be easily updated as Stevenson reviews more wines. And I’m pretty sure Olivia Pope would download it.

___________________________________________

Continuing on with Scandal (last reference, I promise), it looked to me like Olivia was eating steak with mushroom sauce, mashed potatoes, and green beans during her wine instruction dinner with her father. Mushroom sauce seems like a wintery thing, and sure enough, Olivia was wearing a winter coat on her way over to her father’s. But it works in the summer, too. Even if you’re going to grill the steak outside, you can make the sauce inside in about a half hour — and most of that time you’re not standing at the stove. Flank steak is a great choice because it’s easy to cook ahead. The hot mushroom sauce over thinly-sliced, room temperature flank steak is a real treat.

This sauce is my version of the classic Bordelaise Sauce. Bordelaise is usually made with red wine and some sort of stock like beef or veal. But you can get some meat flavor by marinating your flank steak in the raw sauce mixture overnight. Take the steak out of the marinade and pat it dry, then pour the marinade into a saucepan with some dried porcini mushrooms. Reduce the wine sauce until it’s about 2 cups. While it’s cooking down, sauté your mushrooms (regular white mushrooms are fine). Strain the sauce, add a little butter and the mushrooms, and you’re done.

You’ll need a whole bottle of red wine for the marinade/sauce. A lighter-bodied, non-oaked wine works better for this part, like Cave la Romaine’s Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Tradition ($10). It’s a great wine for drinking, but also for cooking because reducing it only intensifies its good qualities. You end up with a tasty sauce and no bitter aftertaste. Once the meal is ready, though, I’d turn to something a bit bolder, like Cave la Vinsobraise Emeraude 2007 ($18). It has more Syrah than the Rouge Tradition so it’s got more fruit and spice, plus there’s a little oak for smoothness. This wine is drinking very well these days, and it’s worth a little extra for something really delicious.

Bon Appetit!

Tom

Flank Steak with Mushroom Sauce

Serves 4 to 6

1 flank steak, trimmed, about 1-1/2 to 2 pounds

1 750 ml bottle dry red wine

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 branch fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried

6 stems fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon, dried

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Marinate the steak at least a few hours or overnight if possible. Combine the red wine, onion, garlic, rosemary, thyme, soy, Worcestershire, and a little salt and pepper in a gallon-size zipper bag (or a 13 x 9 -inch nonreactive pan). Put the steak in and turn it to coat. Zip close or cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. (If you’re in a hurry, leave it at room temperature for an hour).

Take the steak out of the marinade and pat it dry. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper and set it aside while you make the sauce. This is the time to heat up your grill, the grill pan, or the broiler.

Pour the marinade into a medium saucepan. Rinse the dried mushrooms in cold water to remove any grit, then add them to the marinade. Bring it to a boil over high heat, and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat but keep it boiling, you’ll want to reduce it by a little more than half to 1-1/4 cups, about 20 minutes.

While the sauce is boiling away, cook the steak — about 4 minutes each side for rare, 5 for medium-rare. Transfer the meat to a plate and loosely cover it with foil. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes to cool off and redistribute the juices.

Then cook the mushrooms. Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until you see it shimmer. Add the mushrooms and a little salt and pepper. Shake the pan to distribute the mushrooms over the bottom. Crank the heat to high and leave the mushrooms alone for a minute. Using a spatula, turn them over quickly and cook on high for another minute. Transfer them to a plate to cool off.When you’re ready to serve, strain the sauce and return it to the pan along with the mushrooms, along with any juice that came out of the mushrooms and the steak. Bring the sauce to a simmer, and add the butter, whisking it in to mix. Taste for salt and pepper. Slice the steak very thinly across the grain and serve with the sauce on top.

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