More than thirty years ago, when I started tasting wine instead of just drinking it, I was coordinating tastings for W&S in New York. The magazine had been founded in Berkeley, focused on California wines, and my job was to help establish a presence on the East Coast with imported wines. We hired writers to run the tastings and to invite their most knowledgeable friends in the wine trade. I was in charge of logistics—from sourcing and logging the wines to numbering glasses in our office kitchen, pouring and presenting each flight blind to the tasters in the conference room.
The most obvious difference between the way I drank wine and their approach to tasting wine was audible—in the way they slurped the wine around in their mouths and then spit it out. At the time, several of them told me they were “aerating” the wine to amplify the aromas. Through them, and through a number of interviews with academics who taught wine tasting, I learned how to hold wine in my mouth and draw air over it without choking. I also learned that I was smelling the wine retronasally—through the passages at the back of my mouth, rather than through my nose.
In the intervening 30 years, any number of people have told me that it is not possible to clearly assess a wine without swallowing it—that tasting a whole raft of wines in one sitting by spitting them out is a bogus enterprise. So I was fascinated when I reached a passage in Gordon Shepherd’s new book, Neuroenology, that takes a scientific view of this debate. Shepherd describes how a wine taster, by drawing air over the wine in the mouth, is breathing in volatile compounds that carry the aroma into the lungs. That much I had understood. He also suggests that these volatile compounds coat the throat, much as they would when we swallow a sip of wine, so that we continue to “taste” the wine as we breath out.
“The flavor of a wine, like the flavor of food, engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.” —Gordon Shepherd, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine
It is possible to taste and swallow 30 or 40 wines in a sitting, though the result is often not pretty. For those of us who spit, a little wine inevitably works its way down our throats, but, more importantly, all those volatile compounds are there in our throats and lungs. They drive the subtle and lingering finish of a great wine, or the unfortunate end of something less appealing.
Inexpensive wines often end badly, not only by being cloying sweet or aggressively bitter—things we can taste—but also by lasting on aromas we would rather forget, or not lasting with any aroma at all. Those challenges might be less apparent in the context of dinner, but how much better would dinner be if an inexpensive wine were fresh and balanced, with a fragrance that lingered in a way that drew you back for another sip?
Most of the wine sold in the US is priced in line with a six-pack of beer. And if I have $10 to spend, my choices for good beer are broader and more consistent than my choices for wine. But we do find some delicious exceptions to that rule and present them in this issue, along with a much broader swath of wines priced $15 or less. If you’re searching for a needle in a haystack, we’ve already sifted through a lot of the dross.
These wines may not receive the highest scores from our reviewers, but we stand behind them as delicious and representative of their regions, and crowd-pleasing drinks at the price. We’re proud to present our Top 100 Values and our 44 Value Brands of the Year for your summer drinking.
illustration by John S. Dykes