Head Butler: Book Review: Oldman’s Guide To Outsmarting Wine

Jesse Kornbluth

A friend and I were laughing about the ridiculous learning curve of our wine education. Consider the wines we started on — Boone’s Farm Apple, Gallo with a screw top, Almaden in jugs (our first wine with a cork), fizzy Portugese whites in funny shaped bottles and rough Spanish Riojas wrapped in plastic netting. Finally we fought our way up the chain to our first French wine. It was Mouton-Cadet, because — as some joker told us — “It’s Frank Sinatra’s favorite.” Like Frank bought wine in a supermarket!

Surely you could have the same chuckles if you walk back on memory lane to your early wine experiences.

But when the laughter ends, the tragic element of these stories is revealed. The nights we wasted drinking inferior wine — we’ll never get them back. And in our youth — whenever our youth was — wine was as cheap as beer is now; if we had known what to buy, we could have built world-class cellars for peanuts.

If only we’d had just one book: Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine.

As wine experts go, Mark Oldman is just a kid, and that’s a good thing. He started a wine club at Stanford University in 1990, where he and his friends sampled California wines. Later, he escaped to New York, where he taught classes in wine appreciation and drank widely from a broader selection. He’s under no one’s spell. He writes like a person who has not been indoctrinated in the cult of wine. And, in addition to having great taste, he has figured out a way to teach you about wine that is simple, logical and painless. Finally, he has a nose for a bargain — learn his simple lessons and you will never be fleeced by a waiter or wine merchant again.

The joke of it all: It turns out there is very little you need to know. Oldman rockets you through a discussion of grapes (bless him for hammering away at winemakers who transformed creamy Chardonnay into wines that are like “big, blowsy butterballs” and for singing the praises of under-appreciated Riesling). White Zinfandel? “At best, easy drinking and refreshing, and, at worst, liquefied bubble gum.”

And then we’re off to a discussion of wines, divided by type and country, then further divided by affordability. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume — light, citrusy, best consumed when young, and did we say inexpensive? Pinot Grigio? A safe, boring, deeply overpriced choice. Next time you are about to order white wine, you’ll know.

There are great wines, and there will be times when you will want to drink them; Oldman provides a list to consider when you have a big expense account and are at a fine restaurant. But his real achievement is liberating Americans from a narrow, expensive chauvinism. The simplest fact is that, even with a falling dollar, a lot of California wine is overpriced and overhyped. If you know where to look, there are better values — and, arguably, better drinking — in foreign vintages.

Chianti, for example; it’s no longer the wine you chugged before using the straw-covered bottle as a candleholder. Australian Shiraz, a work of art at $10 a bottle. Barbera, once despised, now a good substitute for pricy Beaujolais.

What do you order on Valentine’s Day? Oldman tells you. What do you drink the day you get out of prison — or on your deathbed? He knows that too. He matches wine with food for you. He explains why wine is unsatisfying with salads and artichokes. He blows the whistle on restaurant wine lists. He even tells you what to buy at Costco. And how can you not love a wine writer who serves up “fifty best buys under $15.”

I am no longer a pup; in my cellar are wines older than some of you. No matter. I learned a ton from Mark Oldman — and one of the things I learned is that we agree on any number of wines. That is because, along the way, I paid attention to my likes and dislikes; I trusted my taste. You should trust your taste as well. But how nice for you — you will have, as I did not, a smart, opinionated friend at your side, cheering you on and helping you educate yourself at the same time.

I raise my glass to Mark Oldman.