Wine Pages

Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist


Good or Great? Just give me distinctive and tasty

Food and Wine Magazine arrived in the mailbox recently, and I was flipping through the pages, checking out the latest celeb chef news, product promotions, and other such content, when I came across Lettie Teague's article entitled "Is Greatness Overated?" I like Teague's writing, often asking simple questions about wine and exploring the answer through calls to friends, both in and out of the wine business. She has explored such topics in the past as why steakhouses have such dull wine lists, what life as a wholesale wine salesperson is like, and when vintages matter (or don't). A series of columns she wrote about teaching her friend, movie critic Peter Travers, about wine was eventually turned into a lovely little book.

But her recent article on "good" wines vs. "great" wines bothered me. Based on the defining distinction offered to her by two very wine-knowledgeable professionals, wine "greatness" directly correlates to wine price. According to one of her sources, "A good wine costs $20 to $100 a bottle. And a great wine? Over $100." She later recounts the story of a "great wine" dinner party she is invited to in Chicago, where she brings a truly terrific Vouvray from a highly respected producer only to have her host suggest it might make for a good cooking wine for his risotto. Wine "greatness" for this crowd seems to center in Grand Cru Burgundy, First Growth Bordeaux, and Napa Cab priced in the three-figures. These may be great wines, but they have no monopoly on "greatness."

Even in the world of wine, where evaluating quality has been reduced to numbers on a 100-point scale (which are not arrived at scientifically, it should be noted), "greatness" can be found in the eye (or on the palate) of the beholder. There are truly amazing, and yes, "great" wines being made in many places throughout the world. Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, North and South America, and yes, even New Zealand and Australia, just to name a few place, produce some wines of "greatness." And... many of these wines don't even begin to approach prices anywhere near $100, let along half as much. "Greatness," in wine, can be interpreted as one or several of many things: depth, strength, complexity, longevity, or maybe simply the ability to provide extraordinary pleasure.

For me, I'll stick to drinking wines I like (or love), even if others don't think of them a "great." Distinctive and tasty wines at $20 or less, to me, may be the greatest thing of all.