Thursday, September 23, 2021

By the Bottle: Jeff Siegel

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life.

Jeff Siegel is the Rubik’s Cube of wine writers. Every time I think I’ve getting close to having the colors lined up, the next move flips me back into chaos. Jeff is a bit of a puzzle to me, and that’s kind of why I like him. You never know what’s going to pop up. Oh sure, he says he’s “someone who has made cheap wine his life’s work and isn’t embarrassed about the choice.” But he loves the expensive stuff too. It’s just not his beat. As the Wine Curmudgeon, Jeff has carved out a niche, and has actually monetized his blog, something most bloggers have failed to do. He also has a book, which proves that not just Jamie Goode can get a wine book published these days. Anyway, I digress. Let’s welcome the man who questions what really makes a wine “great” but is a stickler for it having to be “honest.”

What wines do you have standing up right now?

Almost all my wines are standing up. When one writes about wine that people buy in supermarkets to drink that night, there’s not much need to put anything down.

What’s the last great wine you drank?

Depends on how you define great. If great means a well-made wine that most of us can afford to drink and that never, ever disappoints, then the Italian Scaia rose with the glass closure – $11 and spot on every time. Had it with an Asian peanut noodle thing, and it was delicious. If you mean the classic definition, it has been a long time. Probably a very young Chateau d’Yquem three years ago. I was long ago priced out of the classic great wine market.


Are there any classic wines that you only recently had for the first time?

Not really. I’m unique among wine writers in what I write about, which means I don’t get many high end samples. But I’m also unique because I buy most of the wine I review. So that eliminates most Super Tuscans, red Bordeauxs, red Bugundys, Napa cabs, and the rest. I’m not complaining about this; rather, just noting how much the wine world has changed since I started in the late 1990s.


Describe your ideal drinking experience (when, where, what, how).

With other people, and it really doesn’t matter where or if they know wine or not – or even, really, what we’re drinking. To me, the fun in wine is tasting it and talking about it – why do you like it, why don’t you like it, do you think it’s worth what it costs. And yes, I’ve been told that I can be quite annoying about this.


What’s your favorite wine no one else has heard of?

Almost certainly a U.S. regional wine. I’ve long been an advocate for wine made in the other 47 states, and even helped start a group called Drink Local Wine with Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post. So maybe an aged Norton from Missouri or Virginia, a New York or Michigan riesling, or a Rhone blend from Texas. 


What wine should everybody drink before the age of 21?

Start with what you like, and it really doesn’t matter what that is. Then be ready to try something different. I hate it when we pigeon hole wines, like there’s some kind of hierarchy and only certain people should drink certain wines at certain times.


What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

Again, why does that matter? Are some wines so special you can only drink them if you have achieved a certain age or status?


Who in wine — winemakers, winery owners, writers, retailers, collectors — active today do you admire most?

Not many, which isn’t so much about the people in wine as one of the first rules I learned as a young newspaperman – don’t God up the ballplayers. Which means people are people, and they do what they do and my job is to report about them and not to admire them. Having said that, Doug Caskey at the Colorado Wine Board, who does an amazing job spreading the gospel of Colorado wine and Drink Local. McIntyre, who writes intelligently for a mass market audience, which isn’t easy – and that it’s a newspaper in the 2020s makes it even more difficult. There are a handful of small retailers, too, people who do an incredible job given the obstacles in the wine business these days. But I don’t want to name them; my endorsement may not be good for business.


Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?

I don’t, but I’m sure the rest of the wine world would – a sweet pink made with catawba from St. James in Missouri. Sometimes, it tastes just like bubble gum. When I used to judge, I would always give it a gold medal. You can imagine how that went over.



Has Covid19 changed the way your approach wine?

Not at all. Because, as my mom joked the other day, I’ve always been weird. I’ve been working at home for almost 30 years, so being at home wasn’t different. And, again, because of the wines I write about, I have never done as much traveling as my colleagues. So not going to France or Spain or Italy or wherever because of the pandemic wasn’t different. I didn’t go much anyway.


Has a wine ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Of course.


What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a wine recently?

Interesting in how wine can be manipulated to appeal to a focus group. I tasted a $12 California sauvignon blanc that mostly tasted like it should, and it wasn’t sweet. But there was this dollop of weird tasting fruit toward the back, which I assume had been put there to make the wine seem sweet. And so the wine didn't taste like sauvignon blanc. Which begs the question: What was the point of making it?


What moves you most in a wine?

Is the wine honest? That is, does it taste like it’s supposed to taste? That’s just as true for a $10 wine as a $100 wine. Years ago, when I was starting, I mentioned this to another wine writer, and he told me I was naive. Maybe. But if I want to drink manipulated crap, I’ll drink a soft drink.


What do you really wish you understood about wine?

All of it. The subject is so vast and so varied, how can I do my job unless I know as much as I can?


Which styles do you especially enjoy drinking?  And which do you avoid?

I truly love almost all wine. The only thing that makes me crazy is sweet wine made for no other reason than to be sweet, and all those overpriced, high-alcohol reds that everyone is supposed to like because they’re overpriced, high-alcohol reds.


How do you organize your wines?

I don’t. I drink them.


What wine might people be surprised to find in your racks?

A 2012 Louis Latour Corton- Charlemagne Grand Cru. Who expects the Wine Curmudgeon to have a $200  wine in the house?


What’s the best wine you’ve ever received as a gift?

A 2012 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru.


How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

Not really. They’ve become more eclectic – I will literally try anything. But I was drinking KWV Steen and Pinotage even before I started writing about wine.


Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What wine did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last wine you set aside without finishing?

I set aside about one-third of wines I taste. Actually, I dump them down the drain, the aforementioned sauvignon blanc being the most recent.


What wine do you think everyone should try?

Any wine. Just try something and be willing to give it a fair shot. You might like it, and then you can begin to try to figure out this wine thing. Which you will never do, but will enjoy every minute of.


You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people from the wine world, dead or alive, do you invite?

The late Diane Teitelbaum, a wine writer and retailer and consultant who taught me so much about wine. I miss Diane a lot. John Bratcher, who has worked in the Texas wine industry since almost before there was one. Dan Peabody, who also started in the newspaper business but somehow ended up working for Banfi. We would drink wine, gossip like crazy, and have so much fun that I’m now going to be depressed that I can’t do this.


What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

None, really. I would have liked to have tasted all the First Growths, which I’ve never tasted, but why be embarrassed about it?


What do you plan to drink next?

A sample, the 2018 Casa Ferreirinha Esteva, an $11 Portuguese red blend. It’s for dinner tonight, with a Mark Bittman recipe I like and have adapted – sort of mushroom Rice-a-Roni, but with bulgar instead of rice.

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