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New Writer, Mark Spivak, Reviews Consumer Wines

January 30th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Mark Spivak

Mark Spivak

Readers: Today I welcome a new columnist to my stable of writers on my blog. He’s Mark Spivak, who will be reviewing consumer wines — the everyday kind that most of us drink. Spivak, a fellow reporter, hosts the wine show Uncorked! Radio on WXEL-90.7 FM Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. He also writes his own blog, Spivak on Wine, and is the wine and spirits editor for the Palm Beach Media Group.

Here’s his introductory column, Spivak on Consumer Wines. Look for it twice a month here at JanNorris.com, and feel free to leave a comment for him – he’ll answer for everyone to read.

Spivak on Consumer Wines – An Introduction


My blog entries on JanNorris.com will be devoted to providing tasting notes and profiles of the wines most people buy on a regular basis – those costing $8-12 for daily drinking, $20 for a special occasion.

Think this is no big deal? Consider: No one else is reviewing these wines, yet 65 percent of the wine sold in this country is bought in drug stores, convenience stores, supermarkets (in the 15 or 16 states where this is legal) and big-box stores such as Costco. But no one mentions them, save for the obligatory “best buy” issue of the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate.

Among collectors and wine geeks, there’s even a common belief that people who don’t spend a lot of money on wine can’t appreciate a quality product.

You and I know this isn’t true. We’re either cheap, affected by the present economic downturn, or unable to spend a ton of money on wine due to our psychological hard-wiring. My wife is from New England, where frugality is a virtue, and wouldn’t spend $100 on a bottle of wine if she won the Powerball jackpot.

Excellent wine exists at $8 and $12, just as it does at $70 and $100. Mediocre wine exists at every price point as well. I’m going to guide you to quality wine you can actually afford to buy, and alternately, warn you about bottles to avoid.

I do things differently


When you’re scratching your head in the supermarket wine aisle, you’re not puzzling over the difference between the 2001 and 2002 vintage in Tuscany. You’re trying to figure out what will go with the pork roast, how to get out of the store without the kids screaming, and how to wrap up dinner in time to recover your sanity for the day.

So I won’t review specific vintages. Most wine in the $10 price range is made in large quantities (500,000 cases or more for national distribution). These are not estate-grown and estate-bottled wines, where the vintage makes a difference. Most mass-market producers buy grapes from dozens or hundreds of growers, then blend it all to achieve a standardized product. If you buy a bottle of Hess Select Chardonnay tonight, it likely will be identical in taste to the one you drank five years ago.


 Most publications that review wine tend to focus on the upper-bracket collectibles, useful to the wine geek. Many worthwhile publications exist, along with various systems of ratings. Some writers and critics use the 100-point scale; some employ 20 points; still others have devised different levels of symbols and codes.

My position is that the average wine buyer will not readily distinguish between a wine rated 91 points and one scoring 88, and that he/she is dealing with more basic concerns (“Is this worth the money?” or “If I open this for company, will it taste like pickle juice?”).

Since I taste a wide range of wine, from grocery store selections to world-class collectibles and everything in between, I wanted to devise a system of evaluation which was understandable and fair.

The Spivak Scale

With that in mind, I use the following scale:

  • A = An excellent to outstanding wine of spectacular depth and character; worth a splurge; cellar material.
  • B = Good to very good; worth the money for current drinking or laying down.
  • C = Fair to average; suitable for current drinking; pricey compared to other wines of its type.
  • D = Poor to below average; a weak example of its type; seriously overpriced.

Plusses and minuses are awarded. The value-for-money ratio always comes into play; a wine which deserves a B at $15 may rate a B+ at $10, or a B- at $20. If most wines within a category normally cost $15, those selling for $25 bear a special burden. If a wine sells for $75-$100, it bears a burden regardless of its peers — this is a steep tariff for a bottle of fermented grape juice, and we all expect it to perform accordingly.

For those addicted to the 100-point scale, here are the rough equivalents:

  • A = 96-100
  • A- = 92-96
  • B+ = 88-91
  • B = 86-89
  • B- = 82-85
  • C+ = 78-81
  • C = 75-79
  • C- = 70-75

Producer profiles

In each column, I’ll focus on a specific producer (Mondavi, Bolla, Yellow Tail, etc). The product line will be reviewed, with an eye toward two criteria: What does it taste like? What kind of food does it go with? The wines will be rated, and the best and worst wines in the range will be singled out.

Let’s get busy!

Here’s a pair of values to get us started:

Clayhouse Adobe White, Paso Robles ($9)

This rich, yet balanced white has a medium to full-bodied texture; flavors of peaches, apricots and citrus are underlined by good acidity. Pairs well with fish dishes in “serious” sauces, as well as chicken, veal or pork. Rating: B

TMI*: The 2007 is a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier, and a grape variety called Princess.

Quattro Mani, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo ($10)

Bright, zesty and spicy, with wonderful acidity and mouthwatering berry flavors. Goes with pizza, pasta in tomato sauce, and grilled white meats. Rating: B+

TMI: Quattro Mani means “four hands,” yet the back label informs us that the wine is a collaboration among four Italian winemakers. Are they all one-handed?

*TMI: Too much information – a/k/a “geekspeak.”

Tags: Mark Spivak on Consumer Wines · Sips: Drinkables

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lurch // Jan 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Interesting column. I look forward to more. Anything that takes the geek-speak out of wine is welcome to this wine rookie.

    But I’m still looking for a wine review that says simply: “Tastes like grapes.”

  • 2 markspivak // Jan 31, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for your e-mail. When grapes are fermented, they go through significant chemical changes. Most of the descriptors wine geeks use (blackberry, cedar, etc) refer to secondary armoas/flavors that emerge during that process.

    That being said, some wines do taste like grapes, usually those less manipulated (Beaujolais Nouveau) or without oak (Italian Pinot Grigio, most Sauvignon blanc). The less you fiddle with it, the more it will smell & taste like grapes.

  • 3 Lurch // Jan 31, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Hi Mark. Thanks for the interesting reply. Part of my (and others’?) struggle with wine is looking at a bottle and having a clue what it’s going to taste like. All those elaborate descriptive words just make it harder and more complicated. And even with basic grape types, one winery’s Chardonnay won’t necessarily taste like another’s. It’s fear of the unknown.

    I wonder if anyone’s done a survey to see how many wine drinkers finally find “their” wine and only buy that one and how many experiment and try lots of labels and types of grape and such.

  • 4 Mark Spivak // Jan 31, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    I’ve heard many wine neophytes express the same fear of the unknown, or intimidation, or whatever it is. Here’s the fact, though: anyone who has become a doctor, lawyer, stockbroker, plumber or electrician has mastered a body of knowledge far more complicated than wine. Wine is just fermented grape juice. Most baseball fans have absorbed more detail than the average wine geek (try explaining the infield fly rule—far more complex than what blackberries taste like). Plus, tasting wine is more fun than studying for the bar or getting your stockbroker’s license. So perhaps we all need to relax about this.

    FYI, I think most wine drinkers settle on a particular brand because of relentless advertising and promotion.

  • 5 Matt // Feb 2, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Lurch, a bottle of wine for two costs less than two tickets to a movie with popcorn. And, there is always a chance the movie is going to be awful.

    If you buy a bottle of wine and absolutely hate it, pour it out and never buy it again. Much like everything else in life, some things you try you won’t like.

    Also, if you find a wine you really like, there is nothing stopping you from buying another bottle just like the last bottle. True, trying something new every once and a while is swell. But, it is also great to stick with what you like.

    As for me, I have never had a glass of wine I enjoyed and most wine tastes lousy.


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