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A Critic Reviews Herself

A lot of restaurant reviewers don't know much about wine. One critic tells her own tale of shame and redemption.

As the restaurant critic for a city magazine in Phoenix, I probably eat out at least 25 times a month. That means I spend a lot of time dissecting menus, spotting trends and expressing strong opinions about every aspect of a restaurant (so much so that it sometimes seems as involuntary as breathing). From wasabi mashed potatoes and wood-fired ovens to menu terminology, I endlessly observe, analyze and, of course, comment on it all--everything, that is, except the restaurant's wine list.

Why, you might reasonably ask, is that? It's a question I've asked myself more than once, one also posed by my friend Wendy, a sales rep and wine wonk for a beverage distributor here in town. Actually, Wendy has been after me for around two years to learn more about wine so that I might begin to write about it. She thinks that as restaurant goers become more sophisticated about food, they're likely to become interested in wine. And while I think that she's right on both counts, I've resisted plunging into the subject, and I know I'm not alone.

I've noticed that a lot of restaurant critics manage to sidestep the issue of wine altogether. If I had to guess why, I'd say it's probably because the subject is vast and we feel that we have quite enough to do just to keep up with what's happening in the world of food. Most of us (the majority of whom came to the profession without a degree in culinary arts) have had to teach ourselves everything we know about ingredients, preparations and cuisines, not to mention having to learn menu French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Greek and Vietnamese. (Name the country, and a restaurant critic can probably offer a few key words or phrases.) Now we have to learn winespeak, too?

Not that restaurant critics have much encouragement (my friend Wendy is an exception) to expand their wine knowledge. The prevailing attitude, even among people in the restaurant industry, seems to be that food is one thing, wine quite another. I'm amazed, for example, at how often waiters solicit wine orders from customers who haven't had a chance to read the menu or decide what they're going to eat. If food and wine go together, why is it that I'm expected to order wine two minutes after I'm seated?

I've also encountered a few editors who don't think of wine and food together. During my first interview for a job as a restaurant critic (so many years ago), the editor asked me some questions about wine, including how I would distinguish a Merlot from a Cabernet. I said something incredibly intelligent along the lines of "a Merlot is a milder red wine than a Cabernet." That was the extent of my knowledge and probably the editor's, too. I was hired, and in the four years that followed, no one, including me, ever mentioned wine again.

Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that my lack of wine knowledge could be personally humiliating. Back in the Eighties, when I was green and restaurants were still Continental, I took my mother to one of those plush baby grand-furnished rooms where the waiters were better dressed than the customers. When Mom ordered a scotch and water and I ordered an iced tea, the waiter shot us a look of such contempt that I nearly slid under the table. In those days, I didn't have a credit card with a fake name, so I imagined the waiter going around town telling everyone, "Nikki Buchanan likes iced tea with her sweetbreads!"

From that day on, I began ordering wine by the glass. And like everyone else of that era, I often chose Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay to play it safe. Oh, I occasionally ordered Sauvignon Blanc, but I never paid attention to producers or gave much thought to what I was drinking. The wineglass alone was my badge of sophistication.

But, finally, Wendy talked me into taking a 10-week wine seminar offered by her company. I dutifully attended class every Monday for three hours with a roomful of waiters, restaurant managers and sommeliers. The pace was breakneck, the volume of information overwhelming (we went through all of the wines of France in one session). In short, I knew that I was in way over my head.

Despite my embarrassment and ignorance, I came to love the last part of class, when Gary, the instructor, conducted the blind tasting. As we lifted each glass, he peppered the class with questions I couldn't imagine anyone answering. What's the grape? The region? The vintage? To my astonishment, people actually came up with credible responses after just a look, a slosh and a sniff. We evaluated each wine's color, clarity and aroma and discussed its body, balance, texture and finish.

While that experience didn't leave me cocky enough to throw around such descriptors as jammy and herbaceous, I did learn a lot about the language of wine. But more than anything else, I began to understand how little I knew about this enormous, compelling subject. Ironically, this realization did not deter me; if anything, I'm less intimidated by, and far more interested in, wine now than ever before.

Take a restaurant wine list, for instance. In the old days, I was always too panicky to really give the thing a look and draw conclusions about its range, affordability and appropriateness to the restaurant's cuisine. Now I pay close attention to how many wines are offered by the glass, and I'm miffed if there isn't a decent selection of wines for less than $30. I expect an Italian restaurant to have an adequate selection of Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunellos, as well as Chiantis, and I wonder why a place that features eight salads on its lunch menu can't come up with something better than two Chardonnays and a white Zinfandel.

I have begun discussing the wine lists of a few restaurants in my reviews, though I feel a bit like a charlatan doing so and would never dream of evaluating the wines themselves. This is partly because I don't want to set myself up as a wine expert (which I'm not) and partly because I'm still inexperienced in the art of seamlessly blending wine and food commentary. It's also because I don't want to come off sounding like one of those humorless types with an oversize spoon around his or her neck.

And a sense of humor is vital. Although there are a few restaurant critics who write about food with levity, I think that most food writers don't feel comfortable enough with wine to treat it with any humor. And I think that we can do so without having to address ourselves to supposed idiots and dummies. Wine can be complicated, certainly, but that doesn't mean that it has to be taken so darned seriously. It's just a beverage after all--something to be drunk for our pleasure, not our self-esteem.

Nikki Buchanan is the restaurant critic of Phoenix Magazine, a restaurant talk show host on KTAR radio and the restaurant reviewer of Good Morning, Arizona on KTVK-TV.

Published July 1999
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