Traditions and Rituals

Wine lovers develop certain habits that may seem strange in polite company. These customs and rituals are part of wine appreciation. They are also easy to ridicule, and become the essence of wine snobbery to the uninitiated. Yet they (almost always) serve a role in enhancing our enjoyment of the wine.


Tasting wine isn’t always this formal a ritual.  Photo: Alfredo Bartholomaus

We will hold our glass up to the light and gaze intently at the liquid within as if it holds the secret of life. In truth, it may only hold the secret of the next few minutes, but this visual inspection allows us to evaluate the wine’s clarity. Similarly, by tilting the glass against a white background, we can assess the wine’s color and discern a clue to its age and condition.  The color of the wine around the rim changes with age, and if the wine (white or red) seems murky, it may be over the hill or have been stored improperly and exposed to heat.

This visual inspection is also why we hold the glass by the stem; fingerprints on the bowl are unsightly, and our hands may warm the wine. True wine geeks will hold the glass by its foot, with or without the pinky extended. This shows sophistication but requires care in performing the next tasting ritual – The Swirl. Holding the foot of the glass gives less control, increasing the risk of clothing stains and social embarrassment. (I speak from experience.) Swirling the glass becomes second nature to wine lovers – we’ve been spotted swirling water glasses in unguarded moments. Yet it serves two purposes. First, it completes our visual appreciation as we note how the wine cascades down the side of the glass. Try this experiment: Take two identical wine glasses and fill one with water no more than a quarter to the top. Then pour an equal amount of red wine into the second glass. Swirl each glass. The water will simply fall back to the bottom, but the wine should form rivulets that flow more slowly, as if clinging to the side of the glass. These rivulets are called “legs” or “tears,” depending on whether you’re feeling sexist or emotional. A wine that has “nice legs” will have good body and will taste richer, perhaps with more alcohol, than one that leaves little to behold after a good swirl.

The swirl’s second purpose is to release the wine’s aromas into the bowl of the glass so we can perform the next step: Stick our nose in the glass and inhale deeply. (Swirling and sticking one’s proboscis below the rim are two very good reasons not to fill the glass too high!)

Finally, after all this rigmarole, we actually put the wine into our mouth. But we don’t swallow it at first. Rather, we gargle it. By aerating the wine and swishing it noisily around our gums, we theoretically release more of the wine’s flavors. We certainly annoy anyone around us. A sommelier friend of mine chews his wine so noisily, I had to ask him to be quiet when we were judging a wine competition together. I could hardly hear myself taste.

Even after we swallow (or spit if we’re at a wine tasting), we’re not done. There’s still the “Oooh – ahh” of sucking in air to enjoy the wine’s leftover flavors that linger in the mouth. No, we’re not Army veterans. This is yet another way of accentuating the wine’s flavors.

And then, maybe we’ll smile. But there’s still one more ritual: We pull out our smartphones and post a photo of the wine on social media. Facebook and apps like Delectable or Vivino make it easy to catalog and brag about the wines we drink. For what’s the point of enjoying a wine if we can’t share it?

(A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post on May 25, 2015.)

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Toasting Independence Day with Madeira

With the heat and humidity of July here in the Mid-Atlantic, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest a fortified wine to toast Independence Day. But the Founding Fathers, up there in “foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy Philadelphia,” as John Adams described it in the musical 1776, toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. In this piece, an edited version of which was posted on on June 30 and published in print July 4, I discuss Madeira’s role in our Revolutionary history with two experts. There’s wine history here, too, including possibly the first point score given to a wine by an American wine writer.

Bartholomew Broadbent was befuddled. For nearly three decades, the British-born wine importer with the famous name (his father is Michael Broadbent, famed wine writer and auctioneer) had tried to convince American consumers that Madeira played a fundamental role in U.S. history, and therefore deserved a place of honor on their dinner tables.

Broadbent boasts of bringing Madeira back to the United States in 1988 for the first time since Prohibition, that dark age when our collective knowledge of the pleasures of the grape were systematically erased from our national consciousness, leaving us with a taste for bathtub hootch. He used history as his sales pitch.

“It always amazed me that Americans had no idea their Founding Fathers drank more Madeira than any other wine,” says Broadbent, founder of Broadbent Selections, based in Richmond, Va. “I’d tell audiences that George Washington drank a pint of Madeira every day, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both toasted with Madeira. And I’d explain that Betsy Ross, while sewing the flag, had a side table with a glass of Madeira on it. The only artistic license I allowed myself was to say, ‘That’s probably why she saw stars!’ The rest is all true.”

Last November, at the national conference of the American Wine Society, Broadbent again preached the Madeira gospel and chastised his audience for not remembering Madeira’s role in their nation’s history. A woman in the audience raised her hand. She was a retired history teacher. “She said all references to alcohol are removed from American history texts,” Broadbent recalls. “Now I know.”

Well, not every reference to alcohol is excised, of course. I recall learning about the Whiskey Rebellion, Skid Row, Carrie Nation and the Temperance movement, and of course Prohibition. Only the positive references to alcohol are banished from U.S. history books.

We can forgive Broadbent’s adorable fixation on the role alcohol played in early U.S. history, and maybe even the native British nationalism of this naturalized U.S. citizen. “As Englishmen, we don’t know a lot about American history, but there are two things we know for sure,” he says. “One is that Madeira played a hugely significant role in American history, and the other is that Canadians did not burn down the White House in 1814.”

He’s certainly right on that first point. Aaron Nix-Gomez, a software engineer by trade and a wine historian by avocation, whom I have written about before, recently wrote extensively about Madeira’s impact on early U.S. history on his blog, The series was based on a talk Nix-Gomez gave in April to the Stanford Wine Society, sponsored by Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Company, another leading importer of Madeira, and Roy Hersh, author of the blog “For the Love of Port.”

Nix-Gomez described how Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would order directly from shippers on the island of Madeira, specifying the color, body and sweetness they desired. (These characteristics were achieved through blending and, well, perhaps some additives.)

And Madeira may have been the first wine to be rated with a point score. John Drayton, a justice of South Carolina and a wealthy plantation owner, sent a 110-gallon “pipe” of Madeira to an acquaintance in 1768, noting that “It is a silky fine flavored wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” The point score may have seemed natural to Drayton, Nix-Gomez notes, as his fortune came from growing rice, which was rated according to the quality of its milling.

In a 2017 post, Nix-Gomez catalogues George Washington’s Madeira purchases during the spring of 1776, when the Continental Army was defending New York City from the British. The captain of Washington’s security detail bought as much Madeira as he could from merchants and collectors in the region on Washington’s behalf, usually in lots of 11 dozen bottles. When British troops captured the house of one of Washington’s suppliers, in Flatbush, they drank the Madeira stash in a “complete drunken frolic,” Nix-Gomez writes.

During his presidency, Washington developed a fondness for “India Madeira,” or wine shipped from the Portuguese island of Madeira to India. Wine lovers were discovering that Madeira improved by “cooking” in the holds of ships, where the pipes were used as ballast. (Modern Madeira is exposed to heat while it ages to replicate this effect.) Washington was willing to pay a premium for his wine to guard against fraud, because he had once purchased an entire pipe that was filled with water. But his two pipes of India Madeira were so precious that he painstakingly had them transported from Philadelphia to Virginia when he retired.

“George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon, where he drank the last glass just months before he died in 1799,” Nix-Gomez wrote.

So here’s a toast to Madeira, the wine of American Independence.

A basic primer on Madeira, the indestructible wine.


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More on Portugal

Having taken an informal sabbatical from blogging for a while, I neglected to post my interview in the Portuguese news magazine Sabado. You can find it here. Google Translate does a fairly decent job of rendering the Portuguese text into English, though it sometimes makes me sound more philosophical and Yoda-ish than I really am. There’s a short video in English, with Portuguese subtitles, that covers most of the interview. I can’t figure out how to share the video here, unfortunately.


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In Vino Veritas

In vino veritas, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote. In wine is truth. It’s an old Latin phrase making fun of people who speak their minds under the influence of alcohol. The quote is buried in a rather hilarious and frightening chapter of Pliny’s Natural History devoted to chronicling drunkenness in Russian society.  In this context, the saying is a warning against excessive drinking, and is often followed by in aqua sanitas, or in water is health.

Today, in vino veritas has been embraced by wine lovers as a positive, or at least a nuanced, statement. There is always that negative connotation of loose-lipped inebriation, but it also hints of a more positive truth, hidden within ourselves and revealed through wine’s mystical quality to elevate our spirit, as the wine we take at communion brings us closer to God.

On two consecutive evenings, on two sides of the country, and with two different groups of people, I experienced this positive truth in wine. The first occasion was a wedding. About a hundred people gathered at District Winery in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the union of two men in a hilarious and unconventional ceremony that combined elements of Greek drama and slapstick comedy with traditional religious ritual. Wine flowed as freely as the tears, and there was cheese and charcuterie amidst the camaraderie. Throughout the reception and dinner and dancing that followed, total strangers bonded over their mutual affection for the happy couple. (At one point, I heard someone exclaim, “I want to meet his sister!”) And I became closer friends with people I deal with regularly but rarely in person.

Wine was secondary to the occasion, of course, but we cannot conceive of such an event without it. Wine is the drink of celebration. We raise our glasses to toast each other, commemorate the past and welcome the future. It helps bring us together. Wine never tastes quite as good when we drink alone — it benefits from, even as it contributes to, communion.

Twenty-four hours later, I was in northwestern New Mexico with about a dozen colleagues. A long day of travel included airport delays, a flat tire in the middle of the desert for one of our team, and the kick of driving along the old Route 66. After all the work was finally done, several of us gathered at our hotel to unwind and debrief on the day’s events.

There was wine, of course. One colleague brought a bottle of Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 from Napa Valley, a gift from his father. I contributed a Limerick Lane 1910 Block Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Argentine malbecs from Gascon and Alamos, procured at local supermarkets, were offered and quickly emptied. There may also have been Crown Royal. Wine is supposed to be paired with food, but all we had was some cold gluten-free pizza and the makings of bruschetta, leftovers from a mid-afternoon dinner. They disappeared quickly, but fatigue was our main course.

And we feasted on conversation. After recapping the day, talk moved on to work and life. We didn’t say about much about the wine. Instead, we ragged on bureaucracy and bragged of our individual accomplishments, as well as those of our children. Before long there were several conversations going at once, as colleagues became friends and an ordinary work trip became an experience that we will remember for years and may ultimately be mentioned at our retirement parties. No one was drunk, but we relaxed and laughed and communed as wine transformed our fatigue into energy for a few hours. When the bottles were empty, we cleaned the room and called it a night, happy and ready to do it all again the next day.

Life and work drove these days, not wine. But wine added its charm and a measure of honesty. It was a voice in the celebratory choir of the wedding, though not the melody. It played magician to a small group in a hotel meeting room, changing a long and weary day into a memorable evening. On a more mundane level, wine can help us celebrate minor victories as well as major life events, or lift our cares and spirits when we are down.

In vino veritas.

A different version of this article was published on in late May 2018. 

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Excitement in Portugal

My list of my favorite “Great Value” wines of 2017 — posted here yesterday and published earlier this month in The Washington Post — caused a mini stir in Portugal. Or at least, the winery that produces my #3 wine, Confidencial Reserva, jumped at the chance to publicize my writeup. Here’s a clip from Portuguese TV. A few days later, I was contacted by a reporter for the weekly news magazine Sábadoasking to interview me. We disturbed early bird diners at Tavira restaurant in Chevy Chase, Md., for 90 minutes the other evening as we chatted and the photographer took way too many photos of me.

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Great Values of 2017

This is a new feature I’ll probably do annually for The Washington Post, highlighting my favorite wines of the past year that I gave the “Great Value” designation. I’m deleting the store listings here, so it won’t be such a long post. You can see the original, with photos, here. 

With all the wines on the shelves vying for your attention when you walk into a wine store or a supermarket, how do you choose which one to take home for dinner? A catchy name or pretty label stands out. A heavy bottle looks and feels important. But you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if the money you shell out for that wine might be paying for that designer label or studly bottle, rather than the juice inside.

In 2017, I recommended more than 250 wines in this column. Of those, I labeled slightly more than 100 as “Great Values.” The Great Value designation is subjective — after all, I recommend only wines I believe are worth what they cost. A Great Value offers extra excitement, performing at a level above its price. Value doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. The Ayala Brut Majeur Champagne I recommended last week impressed me so much, I gave it three stars (“exceptional”) and a Great Value  tag because it far outperforms other $40 champagnes. But only a handful of my Great Values were over $20, and most of those were sparkling wines.

My list would suggest that wine’s best values come in the $12 to $20 range. In all, I put the tag on 27 wines that I also gave my highest rating of 3 stars. These ranged in price from $13 to $40. I gave 2 1/2 stars (excellent to exceptional) and the Great Value  label to 36 wines ranging from $10 to $24, and 2 stars (excellent) and Great Value to another 38 wines ranging from $9 to $20. Eight wines, from $8 to $12, scored 1 1/2 stars (very good to excellent) and Great Value.

France led the way with 41 great values, followed by the United States with 15 (10 from California, four from Oregon and one from New York), Italy (13), Spain (9) and Portugal (6). Other countries making cameos included Chile, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia and South Africa. As 2017 was the year of rosé, 26 pink wines made the list — nearly a quarter of the total. That reflects the growing number of rosés in the market as well as my enthusiasm for them. Fifteen great values were sparkling.

So here is a case of wine for you:  my 12 favorite Great Values  from 2017, with the most expensive at $16 and the cheapest at $8. These are not just  top scorers. Those I list here were memorable in a certain way, either their sheer quality for the price, or their uniqueness, or some other factor. I’ve ranked them in descending order, after applying a simple equation that takes into account my star rating — my enthusiasm for the wine — and the price. The better the wine and the lower the price, the higher the ranking. Note that some of these wines have moved on to the next vintage; don’t let that stop you from trying them. Others may be sold out. We provide the store lists to show where the distributors say the wines should be available, but it’s always best to call and check, or to ask a favorite retailer to order for you. Wines this good, at this price, are worth the wait — or the hunt.


  1. Château Montaud Côtes de Provence Rosé 2016

2 Stars

Provence, France, $13

I like this rosé every year, but in 2017 it came in a 3-liter box for $26, or about $6.50 a bottle, making it cheaper and more fun. Bottles are still available, though the boxes have sold out. I suspect they will reappear with the 2017 vintage for next summer’s picnics and patio parties. ABV: 12 percent.  

  1. Evolucio Blaufrankisch 2014

2 Stars

Weinland, Austria, $12

When I first tasted this spicy, delicious red, I made a note and put it aside. When I found it two weeks later and tried it again, I was even more impressed with its vibrancy and “flavors of black cherry, raspberry, caraway and fenugreek.” I used no vacuum pump or inert gas to preserve it, just replaced the screw cap and kept it at room temperature. Well-made wine can keep that way. (The distributor has moved on to the 2015, a great vintage in Austria.) ABV: 13.5 percent.


  1. Chateau de Passavant 2015

2.5 Stars

Anjou, Loire Valley, France, $15

Chenin blanc deserves more respect for its ability to delight, both dry and sweet. You could enjoy this dry version by itself, but it really wants to dance with poultry or seafood. Demeter certified as biodynamic, made from organic grapes. ABV: 12.5 percent.


  1. Loosen Bros. Dr. L Sparkling Riesling

2.5 Stars

Germany, $15

Sparkling Riesling may be Germany’s best-kept secret. This delightful example shows Riesling’s bubbly personality at its best. ABV: 12.5 percent.


  1. Cavalchina Bardolino Chiaretto 2015/2016

3 Stars

Veneto, Italy, $16

This zesty, juicy rosé made from the grapes that typically go into Valpolicella (corvina, rondinella and molinara) is super, year after year. It’s great by itself, but excels with salty or garlicky foods such as olives or hummus. This is a rosé to drink year round, and not worry about having the freshest vintage. Alcohol by volume: 12.5 percent.


  1. Domaine de Chevalier, La Petite Lune 2015

3 Stars

Bordeaux, France, $16

The only thing getting the Bordelais more excited than their 2015 vintage is the 2016. When I saw this wine was from Domaine de Chevalier, one of my favorite producers, I immediately had high expectations. The wine didn’t disappoint, and is phenomenal for the price. This blend of 70 percent merlot and 30 percent cabernet franc is rich and ripe with cherry, plum and blackberry fruit and a lush texture to carry all that fruit. Classy. Alcohol by volume: 13.5 percent.

  1. Marietta Cellars, Old Vine Red Lot Number 66

3 Stars

California, $16

What a treat it was to reunite with this old friend and find it as good as ever. Based on zinfandel, this savory, stylish blend is so good it may distract you from your meal. ABV: 13.5 percent.


  1. Hugl Weine Zweigelt Rosé 2016

2.5 Stars                                                                                                       

Austria, $13

Austria is most famous for its outstanding white wines from gruner veltliner and Riesling. This delightful rosé from Zweigelt, Austria’s main red grape, is vibrant and peppery, with loads of cherry and raspberry flavors. The distributor is now sold out; the stores listed below placed orders after July. ABV: 12 percent.


  1. Chateau de Marjolet Cotes-du-Rhone 2015

3 Stars

Rhone Valley, France, $15

Rhone wines have crept up in price, but this beauty manages to overdeliver for the category. Deep and savory, with a sense of mountain air, sea breeze and wild herbs. Alcohol by volume: 14 percent.


  1. Confidencial Reserva 2013

2.5 Stars

Lisboa, Portugal, $12

This wine reminded me why Portugal is one of my favorite regions to hunt for value. It’s a stylish, juicy red with Bing cherry and sour plum flavors, a texture like the rough side of velvet, and elegant tannins. It’s a red-meat wine. ABV: 13.5 percent.


  1. Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2016

2 Stars

California, $8

This wine shined when I rated 29 of America’s favorite cheap wines. It stood out from the crowd of mediocre plonk because it had clean, bright fruit flavors and “a good balance of acid and sweetness.” Best of all, it’s available everywhere, from convenience stores to wine megamarts. ABV: 13.5 percent.


  1. Goru Verde 2015

2.5 Stars

Jumilla, Spain, $10


When I started compiling this list, this was the first wine I thought of. Back in June, I said it “may be the best $10 red I’ve tasted in a long time.” It still is. Made from organic monastrell (mourvedre) grapes, it features dark cherry and dried fig flavors with hints of black olive, tea and tobacco. Alcohol by volume: 14 percent.



Posted in Austria, Bargain Wines, California, Cheap Wine, France, Germany, Portugal, Rhône, Riesling, Spain, Wine, Zweigelt | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Bubbles! Bubbles! Bubbles!

WordPress has managed to cut me off from my blog on my computer (I may have had something to do with it) but not my phone. So I will just post a link to my most recent recommendations of sparkling wine for the holidays. Happy New Year, everyone!

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