Kermit Lynch once described a wine he imported as “a mouth rinse.” He meant it as praise. I saw this a decade ago and have never forgotten it.

Nobody speaks well of simplicity in wine. It doesn’t matter which side of the power vs. elegance debate you’re on. Power fans want an iron fist in a velvet glove. Elegance fans want a complex wine that reveals more the longer you spend with it. Nobody wants a mouth rinse.

Some of this can be blamed on the 100-point scale. It’s hard to argue that a clean, simple Chilean Sauvignon Blanc or Oregon Pinot Gris should rate higher than a naturally fermented, oak-aged Chardonnay. My favorite description for the meaning of the 100-point scale is Wine Review Online publisher Robert Whitley’s; he calls it “a measure of the writer’s enthusiasm for the wine.” Can anyone say a mouth rinse gets them as excited as a floral, complex wine with a long finish?

But you don’t need to be a doler out of points to disdain simplicity. I want to emphasize how widespread this bias is. I had a short discussion with Eric Asimov – deserving hero of wine traditionalists – on Twitter a few months ago when readers were giving him a hard time about calling wines under $40 in restaurants “affordable.” Asimov said many readers only wanted wines under $15. I suggested Vinho Verde. He agreed that it’s good value, but said it’s not very interesting.

I can’t argue with that. You can always have a more interesting wine than a mouth rinse. But sometimes I don’t want one.

Joe_seafoodstewThis is a difficult position to take, and particularly right now. This column is running in Palate Press just when people are planning to “bring the lumber,” as Rudy Kurniawan’s ex-friends describe pulling big-name wines out of their cellars to impress their buddies. In fact, for a little peek behind the curtain, I’ll pause after this paragraph to meet a friend and his family for dinner. He’s bringing a Chassagne-Montrachet and a Rioja Gran Reserva. I can’t bring a Vinho Verde – even though it would go great with the first course. It wouldn’t feel right.

But sometimes a good mouth rinse is exactly what’s called for: culinarily, emotionally or both.

First, the culinary side. I’ve got a closet full of awesome red wines, but I eat mostly fish and vegetables for dinner. I’m not going to tell somebody else not to have Cabernet with fish, but I personally will not. We eat a fair amount of Japanese and Japanese-inspired food in my home, and consume a fair amount of sake with it. But sometimes I prefer wine. Yet the point of Japanese food is to savor fresh ingredients, especially delicate white flesh fish. An awesome white wine, or even a strongly flavored one, is often too overpowering.

It’s difficult to find the right vocabulary to exalt a simple, clean, restrained wine in these circumstances. You can’t actually say “simple” as praise, even though that’s the very quality that might be called for. “Elegant” or “graceful” seem to overstate the case. “Clean,” I use that sometimes, but it doesn’t say much in a wine world where these days most contaminations are, if not exactly intentional, at least tolerated.

There’s also an emotional side. Rarely in a restaurant do I want a simple wine (a sushi bar would be an exception, but I’d rather have sake.) Wine is part of the meal and I want to be intrigued, excited, and/or pleased – not always concurrent qualities – by what’s in my glass.

But drinking wine at home is different. I write about wine so I can’t claim the “I work hard all day and just want to relax with a Bud Light” line of reasoning, though plenty of Americans would.

Yet sometimes I don’t want to analyze what I’m drinking. I don’t want to take notes. And I don’t actually want greatness, because greatness would force me to pay attention. This sounds like blasphemy for a wine writer, but there are nights I’d rather not have Romanée-Conti, even if it were free, because then the night would be about Romanée-Conti.

It’s not possible to change the paradigm of wine appreciation. A great red Burgundy is better in every definable way than a good Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. And the culture of wine is to constantly seek something better: a more powerful Cabernet, or a more complex Pinot, or a more unique Grenache, or a better expression of the terroir of Tuscany.

But maybe you sometimes feel like I do, and if so, I want to be there for you. What we feel is valid, and we can still be oenophiles. We don’t have to give up our Wine Lover credentials if we think the following:

I love great wine. But sometimes I’d rather have a mouth rinse.

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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  • Bob Henry (wine professional)

    Blake, you write: “I’m not going to tell somebody else not to have Cabernet with fish, but I personally will not.”

    Maybe you should show those somebodies this article?

    From The American Association for the Advancement of Science
    Science Now Website
    (October 22, 2009):

    “Why Fish and Red Wine Don’t Mix”

    Link: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2009/10/22-02.html

    By Phil Berardelli

    For ages, diners have been told that drinking red wine while eating seafood can produce an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. The rule of thumb has been red wine with meat, white wine with fish. But the rule is not hard and fast. Seafood can taste fine with some reds, whereas some whites can ruin the meal. What’s the common factor?

    Researchers at Mercian Corp. in Fujisawa, Japan, a division of which produces wine and spirits, decided to find out. They conducted an experiment with seven experienced wine tasters who were offered 38 varieties of red and 26 types of white. Over four sessions, the volunteers tasted the samples, along with pieces of scallops, the seafood most likely to produce the fishy effect. Then the researchers chemically analyzed the wines for a possible link to the aftertaste.

    The culprit appears to be IRON, the team reports in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. When the element’s content rose above 2 milligrams per liter or so, the seafood-dining experience turned sour. The team double-checked their results by soaking pieces of dried scallops in samples of wine. Scallops dunked in vino with low iron content smelled normal, but pieces soaked in samples with high iron content reeked of fish.

    The researchers report that they haven’t yet isolated the compound in the scallops that reacts with the wine, but they suspect it’s an unsaturated fatty acid, which could be breaking down rapidly and releasing the decaying fish smell when exposed to iron. How much iron a wine contains depends on the amount in the soil where the grapes were grown, as well as other factors such as how the grapes are harvested and processed. Red wine tends to have a higher iron content, hence the admonition against mixing it with seafood.

    [Aside: arguably Italy has the highest iron content in its vineyard soil, due to volcanic activity. — Bob]

    “We were surprised in our finding,” says research chemist and lead author Takayuki Tamura, “because we thought that polyphenols or sulfur dioxide [produced] the unpleasant sensation.” These components represent a larger percentage of wine content than does iron. He explains that because iron does not “induce color change, accelerated oxidation, or cloudiness,” vintners tend to ignore its potential role as a meal-spoiler. But the new findings, he says, offer winemakers the opportunity to reconsider the downside of iron contamination.

    The paper’s science is sound, says enologist Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. Still, he says, there are better reasons to avoid red wine with fish: Any robust red wine, regardless of iron content, would likely overwhelm the delicate, subtle flavor of many seafood dishes. Red wine, he says, often pairs better “with a big stew or a hearty chunk of meat.”