The most important information on a California wine label is the name of the grape variety. A label that does not list a grape name but gives only a place name, such as "Joe Doe's California Burgundy" is a blend of various, usually lesser grade, grapes. The next most important piece of information is the geographical location of the grapes. This is important because a winery may be in a tip-top grape-growing region such as the Napa Valley, but nonetheless sell wine made from grapes grown in lesser quality regions such as the central valley. If the label, for example, says "California, Cabernet Sauvignon," the majority of the grapes were probably not grown in a premier region, since the wine could command a higher price (and probably be better wine) if it did come from a better region. Sometimes the label will read something like "North Coast Counties, Cabernet Sauvignon." This is a little better, since at least it means a majority of the grapes are not from the hot central valley (in which premier wine grapes do not do well) . Better would be a more specific location: "Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon." And one California wine maker, Joe Heitz, has become famous for wine from a particular part of Napa Valley, "Martha's Vineyard," a small, 15-acre parcel. The California rules as to whether the winery completely supervised the production of the wine, all the way from growing the grapes to bottling, are tricky but important. This is where the fine print, usually toward the bottom of the label, is important. In order of preference, here are the designations: • "Estate-bottled" — the winemaker has 100 percent control, from vineyard to bottling. • "Produced" — the vinter crushed, fermented and matured at least 75 percent of the wine in the bottle. • "Made" — the vinter crushed, fermented and matured somewhere between 10 percent and 75 percent of the wine. • "Cellared," "Perfected," "Prepared" — the vinter did something with the wine somewhere. Vintage year is also important. All else being equal, wine from certain years is better than wine from others. Also, at least for the premium red wines, you shouldn't drink them until a certain number of years after the vintage, lest they be too harsh. The ideal time for drinking such wines from California is when they are somewhere between five and 10 years old. According to David Pursglove, writing in Wine Magazine, the best vintages in California over the past decade are 1978, 1974 and 1970, with 1975 through 1977 being good, solid years. The French equivalent of "estate-bottled" is "Mis en bouteilleau chateau." If the wine is from the Bordeaux, it is important that this be on the label, because only inferior quality wine isn't estate bottled. For Burgundy wine, the rule is that the more specific the geographical information on the label, the better. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to gain a mastery of Burgundy type wines without simply mastering the geographical names of the area. The easiest rule of thumb, though, is that the more north you go within Burgundy Vintage years are even more important with French wines than with California wines, owing to the greater variableness of climate. (Too little sun in the growing season or late harvest rains can ruin the quality of a harvest.) The best years in the Bordeaux area over the past decade, according to the International Food and Wine Society, are 1978, 1976, 1975, 1971 and 1970. The best vintages in the Burgundy area have been 1978, 1976 and 1969 to 1972. At least with German wines, though, picking quality is not difficult: The 1971 German wine laws provide for the grading of German wines into three categories in order of quality from best to worst: qualitatswein mit pradikat, qualitatswein and tafelwein. Almost all German wines are white. Many of them are sweet and are not really suitable for drinking with a meal, except maybe for dessert. Often, German wine has one of the following words on the label (if it doesn't, then the wine is probably flowery: that is, dry enough to drink with one's meal but also having a bit of sweetness in the aftertaste): • "Kabinett" — dry. • "Spatlese" — basically sweet. • "Auslese" — sweet. • "Beerenauslese" — very sweet. • "Trockenbeerenauslese" – extremely sweet. These degrees of sweetness depend on when the grapes are picked Trockenbeerenauslese practically comes from raisins, the grapes having been on the vine so long! The best vintages in the last decade are 1976, 1975 and 1971.
Many of us will be eating several meals in restaurants during the Feast. Not every restaurant knows how to serve wine, though the best restaurants will (even if they do charge outrageous prices for it — aren't you glad it's the Feast?). A truly fine red wine should be opened as soon as possible after ordering your meal, because such wine needs somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes to "breathe" before it is at its best. White wine should be served chilled. What kind of wine to have with your food? Dry white wine goes well with fish because the higher acidity of the wine cuts the oil in the fish. Really fine red wine should not be served with spicy foods, such as certain Mexican or Italian dishes, because the spices will make it hard to appreciate the various flavors in the wine. (Beer goes best with Mexican food, and most Italian wine is "harsh" enough to stand up to traditional Italian dishes.) Sweet wine should be reserved for dessert because sweetness is deadening and tends to depress your appreciation of your food. For this same reason, when more than one wine is served, the sweet ones should be reserved for last. After a bottle is opened, the host (or the waiter) pours a little into his glass first and then serves his guests. This is so any stray bits of cork floating in the wine go into the host's glass, not his guests'. Also, better wine is drunk rather slowly, with some thought as to its qualities. There doesn't have to be anything pretentious about this, but it is considered bad manners to drink truly fine wine the same way you might quaff a glass of beer. When tasting wine, you should take the time to notice its color (how brilliant? how cloudy?), its aromas and bouquets (its smell), its body (heaviness on the tongue) and its "finish" (aftertaste). And after swallowing, think a few moments about what you just swallowed. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, "A bottle of good wine, like a good act, shines ever in the retrospect."