Many wine books portray Americans as being intimidated by wine. Mike Steinberger says that's silly.
"The numbers clearly don't bear that out," declares Steinberger, author of the new book "The Wine Savant." "Wine consumption has surged in this country. If people are being intimidated by wine, it sure doesn't show up in the data. I see something very different. I see a very self-confident wine culture taking root."
This is the first wine book for Steinberger, 46, who was wine columnist at Slate for 10 years. He previously wrote a book about the decline of French food culture.
"The Wine Savant" is a slim yet wide-ranging book that takes some strong positions, gives some helpful advice, and – unlike many wine books – presents no autobiographical anecdotes whatsoever.
"It's not a memoir," Steinberger stresses. "It's not important for me to be in it."
That's a classic journalism stance. "I spent a couple of years on Wall Street before taking a vow of poverty and becoming a journalist," he says. He moved to Hong Kong before its absorption into China and became a widely published freelance writer.
"I caught the wine bug on a trip to Burgundy," Steinberger recalls. "I got more and more into wine, and at a certain point I realized I could write about it. I had written mostly about political issues, business and economics. I started doing all that but writing about wine too."
When he moved to New York, he played enough squash to become the 16th-ranked player in the United States. He ate out all the time until he met and eventually married a senior editor at Saveur, who is now a cookbook author. Ironically, her responsibilities for her new book and their two young children have forced him to learn to cook.
"I've come home a few times and found the cookbook open to the page she wants me to cook," reports Steinberger. "I grew up in a household where my mother was a very good cook. I developed a passion for food, and more importantly I developed a sense of taste. I think I know how to season. And I don't want to get totally trashed by my kids. They know it's not going to be as good as my wife's food, but I want it to taste as good as possible."
Steinberger wrote an article about alleged wine forger Rudy Kurniawan for Vanity Fair for which movie rights have been optioned. "That's an OK payday," he says. He also recently wrote a cover story for the New York Times magazine about Roger Federer. To write about wine, "You need a day job."
In the book he comes across as an independent thinker, finding things to like and disagree with from both Eric Asimov and Robert Parker. He observes that Parker's tastes have evolved in an unusual way.
"People seem to gravitate to more subtle wines as they get older. He seems to want them even bolder," Steinberger says. "It may be a function of how much he tastes. The beating his palate has taken."
But Steinberger gives Parker much credit for the sophistication of American wine drinkers.
"I go quite often to France, and somebody goes out to dinner and orders a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and everybody says, 'Ooo la la, Châteauneuf-du-Pape'," he says. "We as Americans realize it doesn't matter that it's a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it matters who made it. This is Parker's legacy, what he taught us. Producer, producer, producer. There is this notion in France that appellation is everything. If it says Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it's good. In the U.S., we know better."
But he also believes that "the Parker model of wine criticism originated with him and it's going to die with him. When Parker started, people didn't know all the names of the producers. And he could say when the top names were under-performing. I don't think that's the case now.
Steinberger adds: "People who like Burgundy, they travel there, they know all the names, they have dinner with them. What can a critic tell these guys that they don't already know?"
He also writes about how American enthusiasts have upended dire European predictions by becoming a powerful positive force for the world wine industry.
"There was this idea that Americans are the advocates of globalization, that we were going to stamp out traditional wines, and we were going to remake wine to be standardized," he says. "Turned out not to be the case. People are not just looking for value. They're looking to support small artisans."
Steinberger points out in the book that wine lovers in New York and San Francisco regularly look past well-known grapes and regions to seek out indigenous varieties, giving some a chance to be revived.
"It's going to go from the periphery to the interior," he says. "Someone goes from Des Moines to Brooklyn, tastes some very interesting wines. Next thing you know, those wines are in Des Moines."
He takes some controversial positions. On natural wines, he writes, "A truly natural wine goes by another name: it is called vinegar."
"This is going to make some people uncomfortable, but ... a lot of the most vocal natural wine advocates do a lot of their drinking for free," he says. "They have the luxury of tasting a lot of $40 or $50 wines without worrying if they're going to be a biological time bomb. It's almost a celebration of flawed wines. 'Don't use sulfur,' they say, but we all know wines made without sulfur don't do very well in transit. It's not a big deal if you don't pay for the bottle, but if you pay $30 or $40 for it, it matters."
Steinberger hates sauvignon blanc, and one of his most controversial columns in Slate espoused this. He writes: "The grape is a dud, producing chirpy little wines wholly devoid of complexity and depth, the very qualities that make wine interesting and worth savoring ... the excitement is reserved for the nose; all the mouth gets is a limp, lemony liquid that grows progressively more boring with each sip."
He prefers white Burgundy, riesling, assyrtiko, godello and vermentino. In reds, beyond Burgundy he likes aglianico, lagrein, cabernet franc and mourvedre.
He ends the book with an interesting speculation, comparing Bordeaux today with Madeira in the 18th century. At that time, Madeira was the world's most prestigious wine.
"Madeira had a very quick and steep fall," Steinberger says. "Now it's an obscurity. Is Bordeaux going that way? Bordeaux has clearly lost some of its cachet. A generation of people are coming of age, thinking of Bordeaux as a drink for rich old fogeys. If I were the Bordelais, I'd be very concerned about this. Madeira is a cautionary tale for Bordeaux and in general. Tastes change. What is the grape of the day today might be in absolute obscurity tomorrow."
* "The Wine Savant: A Guide to the New Wine Culture," by Michael Steinberger, is published by W. H. Norton at $24.95.