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book review

‘The Wine Savant’ by Michael Steinberger

22wine credit Natalya Balnova

Natalya Balnova for The Boston Globe

With this slim, lip-smackingly tart volume, Michael Steinberger barges into the crowded field of wine books. He likes to throw elbows, but he is also full of eminently sensible good advice about how to drink wine, how to buy it, and how to savor it. “Wine is a habit that requires no rationale other than the pursuit of enjoyment,” he tells us. Here is a statement of first principles to get behind.

“The Wine Savant’’ is one man’s highly subjective, but very approachable introduction to 21st century wine culture, FROM CHAPTERS ON THE IMAGE OF WINE IN America, BECOMING A WINE GEEK, PAIRING FOOD AND WINE, AND DISPUTES INVOLVING VARIOUS TYPES OF WINE, GRAPES, AND PLACES OF ORIGIN. Steinberger, former wine writer for “Slate’’ and a columnist for “Men’s Journal,’’ knocks down Robert Parker’s 100 point scale — pretty useless, he argues — swoons over Burgundy at the expense of Bordeaux, tells us to pair sushi with champagne (it’s not just for New Year’s anymore), and just drink beer if you’re chowing down on Korean or Thai.

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He knocks California’s “fruit bombs,’’ but finds plenty of good stuff on the Left Coast, and looks beyond Napa and Sonoma. He loathes Sauvignon Blanc, a “complete dud of a grape.” (“The Wine Savant’’ won’t be in my dad’s stocking this year — he lives on the stuff.)

He has his favorite years, but tells us not to get too hung up on this or that vintage, for “great producers make excellent wines pretty much every year.” He thinks South American wines generally stink. He lauds the notion of terroir, the idea that wine should be an expression of place, and gives the edge to the Old World over the New.

For Steinberger, the French still lead the way. “[T]he very best French wines remain the yardsticks against which most other wines are measured,” he writes. But he goes to town on certain Gallic developments, LIKE THE PROLIFERATION OF WINES ENTITLED TO CLAIM THE VAUNTED Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status which, he says, has rendered the DISTINCTION virtually meaningless.

And Steinberger will certainly rile some folks with his swooning chapter on the glories of (red) Burgundy IN WHICH he bashes big, brash Bordeaux for being overpriced (much of it sadly is) and — choquant! — soulless. “Burgundy, with its unpretentious farming culture, represents what we want wine to be; Bordeaux, ever more corporatized and commodified, represents what we don’t want it to become.” (No “Wine Savant’’ for my unfailingly elegant father in law, either — he worships at the temple of Bordeaux.)

What I’m trying to tell you is that Steinberger is an independent, eclectic wine drinker and thinker. One of his chapters is titled “Letting One Thousand Grapes Blossom,” and that just about sums up his view on wine these days. There is more interesting stuff out there than ever before: “the variety on offer now, in terms of both regions and grapes, is unprecedented.”

Even better, much of this wine is affordable. Steinberger is acutely sensitive about the cost of wine, and good for him. Though he concedes that to become a true wine maven, you’ll need to taste “top drawer-stuff,” he is a vigorous advocate of wines in the $15-25 range. Wine should be for the people, not just the toffs.

Steinberger seasons his pages with many useful lists — on the greatest Rieslings, for example, or California’s new vanguard — and I was delighted to find my oenophiliac inclinations matching up with his in his nifty inventory of 10 grapes worth seeking out, among them Aglianico, Vermentino (nothing better on hot summer’s day), and Blaufränkisch, an Austrian grape that makes for spicy, soulful reds.

Above all, Steinberger wants wine drinkers to sip with confidence and not be swayed by the pious mystifications of wine snobs. He wants you to argue with him (oh, you will), your friends, your local sommelier, other wine enthusiasts. Your assignment: Make your own canon of great wines.

Now get drinking.

Matthew Price can be reached at mprice68@ gmail.com.
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