With a glass of wine in hand, Town Square Delaware sat down with the affable – and local! – author and wine / tennis enthusiast Michael Steinberger to talk (wine) fraud, France and Federer. A James Beard Foundation Journalism Award winner, Mike contributes to the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair and is the wine writer for Men’s Journal. His latest book, The Wine Savant: A Guide to the New Wine Culture, is a must-read for viticulturists, and if you’ve ever wondered how much to spend on a decent wine, read on to find out!
Town Square Delaware: You write about wine and tennis, which presumably means you get to drink a lot of wine and watch a lot of tennis. Is that some kind of joke?
Michael Steinberger: I have a very self-indulgent career (and a very tolerant wife). [Editor’s note: TSD previously interviewed Mike’s wife, Kathy Brennan, an author in her own right.] I got my start as a journalist covering the last years of British rule in Hong Kong, and I wrote mostly about political issues, economics, and finance. But then I caught the wine bug, started writing about wine, and it was downhill from there.
TSD: So what the heck is someone who regularly gets to interview Roger Federer and sip Romanee-Conti doing living in Wilmington, Delaware? Are you hiding out?
MS: Yes, I am in a witness protection program and was relocated to Wilmington. Actually, I shouldn’t joke about it: I’ve written extensively about the issue of wine fraud, which involves some pretty unsavory characters, and my wife is convinced that I’m going to be the first wine writer rubbed out in the line of duty. Now the real story: We moved down here eight years ago because we’d just had our second child and thought it would be helpful to live closer to my in-laws, who reside in Wilmington.
TSD: Tell us about your new book, The Wine Savant.
MS: I wanted to write an opinionated, idiosyncratic guide to wine–a book combining practical advice on becoming a smarter wine buyer and a more knowledgeable taster with lots of spirited commentary on all sorts of wine issues (why California is such a wasteland when it comes to value wines, why Burgundy has eclipsed Bordeaux, why food and wine pairings matter less than ever even as sommeliers have become the rock stars of the wine world, etc.). It is both fish and fowl, you might say: Turn to page 75 and you get my skeptical take on the so-called natural wine movement; turn to page 148 and you get my list of the 50 best $25 and under wines in the world. I’m biased, of course, but I think it is a very informative and entertaining book, and the early reviews have concurred, which is gratifying.
TSD: What do you think it is about wine that brings out people’s inner snobs?
MS: There is definitely snobbery associated with wine, though I would suggest that the biggest form of wine snobbery we see these days is reverse snobbery–a belief that wine experts are all bluffing and that there is really no qualitative difference between a $10 wine and a $100 wine. Every time there’s a study purporting to show that wine experts are full of it and that anyone who pays more than $10 for a bottle of wine is a chump, it becomes headline news, and I’m not quite sure why. So many Americans are seriously into wine these days–in fact, we overtook France a few years ago to become the world’s largest wine consuming nation (though they still have us beat on a per capita basis)–and a very dynamic and self-confident wine culture has taken root here. People are embracing wine in all its complexity, are eager to learn as much as they can about it, and don’t seem to have any problem accepting that price and quality are correlated. Generally speaking the more you are willing to pay, the better you are going to drink. There are certainly exceptions to that rule, but by and large, price and quality are linked. That said, you can drink amazingly well for $20-$25, and that’s good enough for most of us.
TSD: How often do your colleagues end up in the bag? Seriously – I can imagine an occupational risk is getting a little to intimate with the content.
MS: That’s a great question, and I think it’s definitely an occupational hazard. There are wine writers who seem to enjoy the product a little too much, and I do wonder if they were drawn to the subject in part because it involves alcohol. I’m pretty careful about how much I consume; I do go to events where the wine is flowing like water, but I make abundant use of the dump buckets. When I taste wine “professionally,” I spit, and when I drink wine for pleasure, I do it in moderation–there’s zero pleasure in being plastered, and there are few things I hate more than waking up with a hangover.
TSD: Best wine, best tennis player?
MS: Greatest wine I’ve ever tasted: 1947 Cheval Blanc
Favorite wine that mortals like me can actually afford: Marcel Lapierre Morgon
Best tennis player: Federer (I will refrain from comparing him to a wine)
TSD: Chadds Ford Winery or Nassau Valley Vineyard, Lewes?
MS: I am all in favor of local viticulture–how’s that for a non-answer?
Michael Steinberger will be at Frank’s Wine on Union Street for a book signing Sunday, December 22nd from noon until 4 pm. Pick up the perfect gift for the wine lover in your life – and perhaps a bottle to accompany it…