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Book News

Review: Fie on 'over-oaked Chardonnay'

'The Wine Avenger'
by Willie Gluckstern

Simon & Schuster, $11

Review by Margaret Howell

(CNN) -- The cover reads "Become a Wine/Food Genius in One Hour."

I thought, "Great!" I love wine, but the only things I really know are my likes/dislikes. I figured the next time I went to dinner, I could amaze my friends with a stunning knowledge of noses and bouquets, legs and color. In other words, I would become the wine connoisseur that I always wanted to be.


  • One 10,000-gallon fermentation tank

  • 10,000 gallons of Chardonnay grape juice

  • Two 25-pound burlap sacks of oak chips (extra-light, light, medium toast, extra-medium toast, heavy toast, or extra-heavy toast)

    1. Toss oak sacks into tank with Chardonnay juice.

    2. Let steep for about a month, lifting and dunking occasionally (like giant tea bags).

    3. Fish out sacks.

    4. Bottle and label.

    Serves 106,000

  • The first few chapters of "Avenger" were informative, though not exciting. Gluckstern, an outspoken critic of wine snobbery, label worship, and over-oaked Chardonnay, covers the basics: How does weather affect the grapes and therefore the wine and the biology of the tongue? How/why we taste wine the way we do? He explains wine terminology -- aroma, balance, mouthfeel, weight, color, etc.

    Then he comes to my favorite part of the book. Not since Dennis Miller has anyone gone off on a rant of such proportion. When it comes to the oaking of wine, Mr. Gluckstern shows no mercy:

    " ...Virtually all under-$10 white wines produced in the United States are sugared with oak chips, powders, and essences. Oak-obsessed California winemakers simply will not let the poor palate-dead American consumer come up for air. (To be fair, neither will Australians, South Africans, or Chileans.) ..."

    This begs the question: Why is virtually all American white wine bludgeoned with oak?

    To satisfy the great American sweet tooth, the wine industry has marked each decade with a new "pop wine": Cold Duck in the sixties, Lambrusco in the seventies, white Zinfandel in the eighties, and finally in the nineties, the great seducer -- Chardonnay.

    (Americans) do enjoy the concept of wine -- as long as it doesn't taste like wine. Oaked wines are far easier for non-wine-drinkers to deal with.

    They are mild, low acid, sweet beverages that are popular for many of the same reasons as fast-food hamburgers: The taste is reliable, always the same -- not great but no surprises.

    The wine establishment, because of a combination of taking the path of least resistance and its own nonenlightened wine experience, has become an unwitting accomplice to this oak-driven madness.

    When consumers, retailers, and restaurateurs cease associating the aroma of oak with quality, perhaps winemakers will stop abusing it. In my twenty-five years' experience teaching consumer and wait staff wine classes, I've found that when someone who's genuinely interested in wine tastes a range of examples uninfluenced by new-oak treatment, set out side by side with oaked wines, they become instant converts to "the real thing." "

    The rest of the book describes different grapes and wines, including a section on Champagne.

    "In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening, no later than 6:00 p.m. People with personality problems would begin each day with a glass."

    The final section lists different types of food and gives a list of wines that best complement that cuisine.

    I don't think anyone will become a "Genius in One Hour." But armed with "The Wine Avenger", most will feel comfortable and confident when ordering wine.

    Margaret Howell is a promotions producer at CNN. She loves writing and cooking.

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