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An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

five reasons why you might be the most intelligent readers on earth

As we mark the first anniversary of this site, it seems like an appropriate moment to pause and say thank you. We’ve attracted a growing and devoted group of readers, and we’re grateful to all of you. While I have access to traffic information and can track your visit patterns, I have no idea who most of you are. Is it an exaggeration to claim that you may be the sharpest group of readers on the planet? Not really, for five compelling reasons.

You have your own opinions: When I started reviewing wine 25 years ago, I naively assumed that my role would be to lead by example. By stating my own opinion, I believed I would be encouraging others to do so. I quickly learned that many people don’t want to invest the time and effort to form their own opinions about wine, and prefer to have an “expert” tell them how to think and what to buy.

If you read this site, you’re obviously an exception to that rule. You may or may not agree with me on every issue, but you don’t come here with the desire to be led around by the nose.

You’re interested in the steak, not the sizzle: Many of us dream of drinking Screaming Eagle or Pappy Van Winkle, or dining in the world’s finest restaurant, and some of us actually get to do those things. But how many people are interested in the actual experience, rather than the peer group accolades? Yes, those types of life moments give you bragging rights. But what are they actually like? Do they live up to the hype? If you’re a frequent visitor, you obviously believe that peak experiences have to live up to their reputation.

Certain wineries have invested a fortune in brand recognition, with predictable result that they become fashionable. There’s nothing wrong with Cakebread or Ferrari-Carano---those wines are well-made and cleanly made. They’re overpriced, though, and that’s because someone has to pay for the advertising and marketing (hint: it’s not them).

Ah, but I hear you saying, those wines are popular for a reason. In some cases, they are the Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the wine world: They’re popular because they’re popular. Every year, Wine & Spirits magazine publishes a list of the top 20 restaurant wine brands. If Rombauer, for example, is singled out as the most popular Chardonnay on American wine lists, that designation will have a ripple effect. Restaurant owners and managers will read the magazine and think, “If that’s the most popular Chardonnay in the country, I’d better put it on my list.” Thus, the ranking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can distinguish between advertising and editorial: This ability to make this distinction is vanishing, due to all the clever ways in which advertising can be camouflaged. If you pick up a national wine magazine and see a full-page ad for a mass market California winery, at least you know what you’re in for. Things become more difficult when the advertiser’s point of view is buried in the magazine’s departments and features. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, obviously, even if that opinion is funded by someone else. There’s nothing wrong with reading The Wine Spectator or The Wine Enthusiast, but it’s helpful to understand what those publications really are. When you pick up those magazines, it’s equivalent to entering a retail wine store. That’s their business: to sell wine, and specifically their advertisers’ wine. When you regard those magazines as journalism, confusion is bound to set in.

I fund this site myself, have yet to make any money from it, and probably never will. That’s fine with me. I do occasionally accept sponsored press trips and complimentary meals, but there’s no payback involved---if I choose to write about it, you still receive an honest appraisal. What I can guarantee is that you’ll never see brand-specific advertising and all the sucking up that follows in the wake of those ads.

Your search for quality is more important than your ego: Every summer, like clockwork, major wine magazines start to tell us that the upcoming vintage is the Vintage of the Century somewhere (usually California). If this is really the Vintage of the Century, you think to yourself, I’d better buy it. After spending a fortune and showing off the bottles to your friends, are you going to admit that you were suckered? Not likely.

Speaking of ego: among the collector class, there’s fierce competition for trophy bottles. Most of these wines (and spirits, for that matter) sit in cellars for years or decades, until they are eventually resold. This type of collecting has nothing to do with consumption. It may be about the thrill of the chase, or the satisfaction of outclassing your peers. If you’re a frequent reader of this site, though, we can assume that you actually drink the stuff from time to time.

You accept the inevitability of change: Most of us are slaves to nostalgia. If we sample an outstanding vintage of a great wine, or eat in a fabulous restaurant, that memory defines the experience for us---even if we don’t revisit the wine or restaurant for a decade. However, nothing remains the same. If you proposed to your wife at a romantic eatery, that place has been enshrined in your life together. It may be terrible today. Sensible people will not shoot the messenger.

In conclusion: I could go on and on, but you get the point. If you’re a follower of this site, you’re probably adventurous, independent, want to learn something, and less apt to be taken in by the snake oil salesmen of the media. I wish there were more of you, but I’m grateful for the ones who come my way.

                     great wine for under $15?

It’s not a typo, oxymoron or stupid question. There’s a lot of very good wine at very low prices, but discovering it is a challenge---particularly when you’re strolling the wine aisle of your local supermarket or beverage superstore, staring at a tsunami of unfamiliar labels.

The answer is Mark Spivak’s Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, available as an e-book for $7.99. The book profiles 43 producers and contains hundreds of wine reviews, and gives you a clear-cut view of the good and the bad. The criteria are simple: What does the wine taste like? What kind of food does it go with? Is it worth the money?

Click here to order (fulfillment is handle by E-Junkie and payments processed through PayPal):

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