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Whatever happened to viognier becoming “the next chardonnay”?

That’s what they told us back in the 1990s, when I was a young man first stumbling into wine. I drank a lot of viognier back then. You couldn’t avoid it. Viognier was found on nearly every wine list you’d encounter. Now? I almost never see it, and I don’t know a single person that says, “Boy, I’d really love me some viognier tonight.” Viognier feels like a vestige of an era when Microsoft might hire Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston to show people how to use Windows 95.

Sometimes, no matter how hard the marketing people and the sommeliers and the wine writers push, a grape just never catches fire. Remember in the not-so-distant past, when torrontés was going to be “the next pinot grigio”? Last year, I heard a lot of chatter about chenin blanc being “the next riesling.” I guess we’ll see about that one.

By the way, how’s that whole sherry renaissance thing working out?

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Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.

So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.

My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.

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“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.

Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.

I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.

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Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.

I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?

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I grew up in New Jersey. Like most guys who grow up in Jersey, I had that one buddy who was, you know, a little too much. You may know the type: He’s loud, wears a little too much cologne, shows a little too much chest hair, wears a flashy watch and gold chain, and tips people from a wad of dollar bills. When you’re out with this guy, he can be cringe-inducing, and he’s difficult to mix with certain friends, some of whom despise him. However — and it never ceases to amaze me — he still manages to charm over a surprising number of people with his overbearing act. Plenty of people simply love the guy.

I often think of gewürztraminer as sort of like this buddy. After all, one of the biggest clichés in wine is, “Gewürztraminer…People love it or hate it!”

White Wine Week TM_WW_GREEK_FI_001

My family lived in the Caribbean for several years when I was young. Our house was just a short walk from a local beach. Often, my sister and I would spend our afternoons snorkeling instead of practicing soccer or playing with our American Girl dolls. I loved living on an island, having a little corner of paradise as my backyard and never being too far from the sea.

I now live in a tiny studio apartment in the city, in a neighborhood with high-rise apartment buildings instead of sandcastles, more than an hour’s drive away from the nearest shoreline. Sometimes, I wish I lived closer to the beach. I miss how salty the water makes my lips taste and how refreshed I feel after a long swim. And even more so, I miss being able to access it at any given moment.

Surely, I’m not the only city dweller that aches for a taste of the ocean during sweltering summers. Over the years, though, I’ve found ways to cope with my urban beach drought. Lately, it’s been with glasses of Greek white wine. They’re an especially perfect cure around this time of year — refreshingly crisp, full of minerality, with telltale hints of salinity. A few have even come close to offering a vacation in a bottle — but they’re also much more than that.

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It was a hot September evening in Valladolid. I was seated outside a café on the Plaza Mayor, sipping on a glass of verdejo from the nearby Rueda alongside several plates of tapas, surrounded by crowds of people doing the same. In Spain, this time of year feels more like late summer than early autumn, and drinking a crisp white wine was a far more pleasant option than yet another glass of the big, bold Spanish reds I had tasted all day.

I remember the wine being tropical, vibrant, and totally gulpable. It wasn’t the most intellectual or complex wine I had ever tasted. It didn’t change my life forever. But that was more than okay. Sometimes you don’t need a wine that does either of those things. My chilled verdejo was exactly what I needed at the moment, and it was downright cheap — only two euros for a glass. As soon as I finished my first glass, I ordered another.

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Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?

Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”

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If I say “wine” and “cocktail,” most Americans will jump immediately to one thing: Sangria. In fact, they might even exclaim something like this: “Woohooo, sangria!” No discussion of wine cocktails can truly begin until we discuss sangria. So I may as well start with a full confession: I do not like sangria.

In fact, I do not like it so much that I actually may have put together an ebook on wine cocktails simply in order to convince people to leave their lame old sangria behind. But soon enough, I realized this was silly on my part. I mean, who am I to tell you not to drink sangria? If you happen to like soggy fruit soaked in cheap wine, by all means, enjoy yourself.

My problem with sangria is two-fold. First, it’s almost always made incorrectly. For the record, sangria is not simply chopped fruit dumped into wine. No, true sangria should always have a significant portion of brandy and also possibly a small amount of liqueur. Ask what they put in your sangria at your local happy hour and most likely it will make you sad.

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Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.

I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.

That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.

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“What are you, a girl? Is this Girls’ Night Out?” That’s what a friend, an investment banker, shouted at me, on a steamy summer night a couple years back, when the waitress brought my cool, refreshing glass of Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto.

I didn’t flinch. As an American male who happens to enjoy drinking rosé wine, I’d heard worse. He continued: “Seriously, dude. Blush wine?”

I considered my friend, sweating through his pink tailored shirt, and finally said: “Yes. At this stage of my life, I’m comfortable enough in my manhood to drink pink wine.” And then I ordered another, adding: “Your mom called it ‘blush’ wine. Grow up.”

Apparently, plenty more people like me have risen up — or manned up, as the case may be — and declared our affection for rosé wines. Because right now, rosé is one of the wine world’s fastest-growing categories.

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Alternative Reds, the first volume of the Planet of the Grapes series from author Jason Wilson, is a guide to off-the-beaten-path red wines that offers a wine lover — whether a newbie or an experienced connoisseur who’s stuck in a rut — a different path into the world of wine. In this excerpt, Wilson explores the fascinatingly rustic, somewhat obscure, great value wines of Southwest France. Get Alternative Reds today on Amazon, iTunes, or from Smart Set Press, and check out the rest of the Planet of the Grapes series.

Negrette. Mauzac. Fer servadou. Tannat. Loin de L’Oeil. No, I am not just making up gibberish words. These are the names of grapes used to produce some wines I’ve been drinking recently. Fronton. Madiran. Marcillac. Gaillac. No, these are not place names from The Lord of the Rings. These are the real designations of origin in Southwest France where those wines come from.

Ah, Mistress Wine…Once I think I have you all figured out, have all the grapes sorted in my mind, all those foreign pronunciations learned, and all the geographical hairsplitting committed to memory, you throw something new at me. Something I’ve never tasted before that makes me realize once again that I will never, ever know everything about you.

Over the past couple years, that something new has been wine from Southwest France. Even though it’s France’s fourth largest appellation in terms of volume, we see very little of the wine from this region in the U.S. That’s a shame, because most of what I’ve been drinking has offered tremendous value.

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It’s currently fashionable in the wine world to once again profess one’s admiration for grüner veltliner — just as six or seven years ago, it was de rigeur to dismiss grüner veltliner as a passing fad. But please believe me, because I’m being sincere when I tell you this: I have always loved grüner veltliner. Always. I’m not one of those wine writers who fell quickly in and out of love, only to now “reconsider ” things because I need a new story angle. I am true of heart. GV, I have never, ever stopped loving you.

I remember fondly the late 1990s and early aughts, when grüner veltliner was just becoming trendy. I was still a young man, but had passed through my flannel-shirt-grunge-failed-novelist days and had begun a semi-respectable career as a food writer. Grüner veltliner dominated the wine lists of the restaurants I was reviewing. “If viognier and sauvignon blanc had a baby,” we were told, “it would be grüner veltliner.” In many people’s minds, GV replaced both the New Zealand sauvignon blancs that were so popular and California viogniers that many were pushing. GV became a default white, perfect with all sorts of food, and reliable quality no matter how good or bad a wine list was.

Then, sometime around 2007, grüner veltliner ceased to be cool. People discovered Friuli or Jura or orange wines or rediscovered riesling or chenin blanc, or in any case moved on to other trends.

Last year, one of the most fascinating pieces of wine writing — and one that particularly played to my own nostalgia — was to be found in importer Terry Theise’s catalog of Austrian wines. In his introductory copy, 60-year-old Theise addressed a new generation of wine professionals now in their twenties and thirties, whom he sees ignoring and disrespecting Austria’s signature white wine grape.

Theise wrote:

“Most of you know it exists, yet there’s a kind of stink to it, as in something that ‘used to be trendy.’ Think of the way you’re discovering all these hitherto-unknown cool things from all over the place, and how much fun it is. That was Grüner Veltliner in the late 90s and early ‘aughts.’ And you don’t want to repeat what those guys did; you want to do new things. Got it, and sympathize.

The problem is, what should have happened was to recognize GV as a classic, wheras what did (too often) happen was it got swept into the rubbish pile of the previously fashionable.

You’re not gonna like what I’m about to say, but in the service of truth I have to say it. Not one single thing that’s been discovered, trumped, lionized, promulgated, put on wine lists and talked about with giddy delight, not ONE. DAMN. THING. has been nearly as excellent as Grüner Veltliner.”

Theise, of course, is the man who introduced most of us to grüner veltliner in the 1990s. I find his plea to the younger generation fascinating, and borderline poignant, because I can clearly picture this middle-aged man, frustrated that he can’t get the kids to see how cool we all were way back when. Theise, whose loud views I find way too over-quoted by an insider wine press (and frankly, whose sales hyperbole is often hard to swallow) was now a man trapped by his own self-created fashion, the vicious cycle of wine trendiness that rewards the flavor of the month and punishes the flavor of last month.

Yet at the same time, Theise seemed a wholly sympathetic character, someone who’s willing to stand up, after all, for that which is classic and good, not just trendy. Because Theise, like his schtick or not, is totally correct about Austrian grüner veltliner. Dollar for dollar, it represents the world’s best value white wines at all different price points, from $13 to $18 to $40 and up. Its baseline quality, its food-friendliness, and its ability to age, is as good or better than just about any other white you’ll find.


Still, if you ever doubted for a moment that wine wasn’t a slave to fashion, consider the 30-year trajectory of GV’s image.

Though Austrians have been making grüner veltliner and enjoying it fresh and young at local wine taverns, called heuriger, since the heyday of the Austrian Empire, it was almost unheard of in the United States. In fact, prior to the 1980s, the only reference to grüner veltliner I can find comes in a 1978 column by the New York Times’ Frank J. Prial, who spells it “gruner weltliner” (no umlaut and with a “w”) and dismisses it as a “fresh, light wine of no particular character.”

By 1985, the only thing most Americans knew about Austrian wines was, during that year, a bunch of unscrupulous wine merchants poisoned their wines with a chemical used in manufacturing antifreeze, in a ham-handed, criminal attempt to increase sweetness levels. That scandal pretty much destroyed whatever small market Austrian wines had at that point. (1985 was also the year that suspected Nazi Kurt Waldheim successfully ran for president, so it was a particularly bad year for Austrian public relations.)

By the time that grunge, Kate Moss, trip hop, and heroin chic became fashionable in the early 1990s — when I came to legal drinking age — no one drank or spoke of Austrian wines, let alone grüner veltliner. But the poisoned-wine scandal forced Austria to pass some of Europe’s strictest wine laws and quality-control procedures. While keeping true to Old World ideals, winemakers embraced certain New World technologies — for instance, they were among the first Europeans to embrace screwcaps over cork.

Then, all of a sudden, near the end of the Clinton administration, grüner veltliner just exploded. In January 2000, the Times’ Prial reported from a “big professional tasting at the TriBeCa Grille,” tasting along with new generation of sommeliers “mostly in their 30’s, looking like a gaggle of graduate students with their book bags and parkas stacked haphazardly by the door.”

Those young somms were after grüner veltliner, which Prial declared “was the most sought after wine at the tasting” and that “the once-inoffensive little wine of the Viennese cafes” was now “the rage” at New York restaurants. That rage burned on for the next several years. People started calling grüner veltliner things like “groo-vee” or “groo-groo.”

But as the aughts and the Bush administration wore on, the love affair inevitably waned. By 2006, wine writer Lettie Teague was asking, in Food & Wine, “Is Grüner a Great Wine or a Groaner?” In that column, Teague quoted top sommelier Belinda Chang, who said grüner veltliner had become “too trendy” and “was kind of a one-night stand for me.”


By 2009, the bloom was officially off the rose when the New York Times’ critic Eric Asimov wrote about a “disquieting” tasting in which his panel — which also included Chang — found “too many wines that were not up to snuff…some were ponderous and heavy…others seemed simply wan and lacked snap.” Over the next few years, you’d be hard pressed to find a wine hipster who wanted to talk to you about GV.

Fast-forward then to late 2013. After Theise published his plaintive catalog copy, a new sort of reconsideration of grüner veltliner seemed to take hold. “It used to be that I considered Grüner Veltliner a fad grape. I’ve come to see just how much it can make a world-class wine,” said San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné in an interview with Serious Eats — a sentiment that was gaining currency within the wine cognescenti.

Last fall, a big trade tasting of aged grüner veltliner, sponsored by the Wine Marketing Board of Austria, happened at Le Bernadin in New York, with many heavy-hitting wine critics in attendance (including Theise). The tasting apparently showed the wine’s aging ability, with vintages dating to the 1970s (I wouldn’t know; I’m not “heavy-hitting” enough to be invited). Wine writers who attended dutifully went back and wrote about old GV. Suddenly, wine people were chattering again about grüner veltliner.

So much so that Jancis Robinson, the esteemed UK author and critic for the Financial Times who was in attendance, was amused enough to write a column headlined, “New York’s faddish wine community.”

“I was in Manhattan two weeks ago and was fascinated to observe just how fashion-conscious its wine commentators are,” Robinson wrote. “Image is everything in the faddish New York market. If Groo-vee had been less popular it might have chugged along as a welcome ingredient on any wine list, as it is in the UK, but success can be a killer in New York.”

All of which, I guess points to a lesson we all inherently know: What was once in fashion, and then out of fashion, will most likely come back around into fashion. Just wait long enough — just like I did with my grunge-era flannel shirts that still hang in my closet.

Grüner is Great

Grüner veltliner is a medium to full-bodied white that’s usually peppery with green (like celery) or herbal notes and crisp orchard fruit flavors, and a core of lively acidity and often smoky minerality. While you can find consistently good bottles under $15, when you shop in the $18-$25 range you find wonderfully balanced and complex whites that offer value often comparable to significantly more expensive dry rieslings and white Burgundy.

Here are 18 recommendations at $25 and under. The first five are my top picks, followed by 13 that also offer tremendous value.

Stadt Krems Grüner Veltliner Weinzierlberg 2013 (12.5% alcohol by volume, $25)
A full bodied grüner, with melon and pear flavors and an herbal note at midpalate. Big and green in the very best way.

Leth Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund 2013 (12.5%, $16)
Very aromatic; lots of orchard fruit and peach, with a core of acidity in the mouth and a lovely, rich finish.

Nigl Grüner Veltliner “Freiheit” Trocken 2012 (12%, $20)
Herbal nose with lots of minerality. Chalky and earthy, with a lively acidity and lime zest, tangerine, and honeydew melon flavors in the mouth. Has a finish that is crisp and long. Very complex.

Huber Grüner Veltliner “Obere Steigen” 2013 (12.5%, $24)
Beautiful white flowers on the nose. Holy pepper – both white and black, and great acidity on the finish. Rich and complex.

Karl Lagler Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Burgberg 2012 (12%, $20)
One of those wines that is better described more as a feeling than flavor. Soft, delicate texture and powdery talc on the nose. Fresh, less ripe peach, with a bit of pepper and smoke. Shy and quiet, but still a lively long finish. Delightful.

Huber Grüner Veltliner “Terrassen” 2013 (12.5%, $18)
Rich in the mouth with apricot and lots of white pepper. Still green, but with a coating minerality.

Ewald Gruber Grüner Veltliner Mühlberg Reserve 2011 (13.5%, $25)
Balanced, with white pepper on the nose, and spicy and lemon flavors.

Hiedler Loss Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $18)
Very peachy, with a great minerality and muted acidity. Clean and crisp.

Leth Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund 2012 (12.5%, $16)
Grilled pineapple and peach on the nose. Peppery with a hint of pleasant spring green, with lots of lime. Lively mineral finish.

Forstreiter Grüner Veltliner Grande Reserve 2008 (13%, $16)
A complex nose; it’s full of minerality, pepper, and even a little nuttiness. Tart white grapefruit, herbs, and a rich, savory edge in the mouth with lively acidity. A little bit of age for a good price.

Huber Grüner Veltliner “Hugo” 2013 (12%, $15)
Crisp, fresh, and green – a classic grüner veltliner. Pear and green apple flavors in the mouth with a kiss of spice on the finish.

Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $13)
Golden in color with big pepper aromas on the nose. Enticing acidity, with lime zest and good minerality.

Hirsch Grüner Veltliner #1 2011 (11.5%, $13)
Nicely balanced, with a touch of lively acidity at midpalate. A clean, fresh nose with aromas of orchard fruit and talc. A very linear wine with a great midpalate sensation.

Ewald Gruber Grüner Veltliner Röschitz 2011 (12.5%, $13)
Crunchy and rich, with fresh pear and grapefruit and a very pleasant texture.

Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner Kremser Goldberg 2012 (12.5%, $13)
Young, with slight effervescence at the pour. Powdery nose, with crunchy acidity at midpalate. Subtle fruit of pear and lemon, with lots of minerality on the finish.

Ecker-Eckhof Grüner Veltliner Landwein 2011 (12%, $13/Liter)
Simple but drinkable and satisfying. Pear, spice and crisp acidity. Great cheap buy.

Mayr Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12%, $13/Liter)
Peach, with a touch of sweetness, but (whoah!) super white pepper on the finish.

Berger Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $13/Liter)
True tavern wine, served in a liter bottle enclosed with a beer cap. Grassy, like a fresh meadow, with a hint of apricot and pepper.

Lead photo by Julia Silva. All others courtesy of Austrian Wine.

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You may have noticed that $8 malbec you’ve been buying for years just doesn’t taste as great as it used to. I’ve noticed, too.

Malbec used to be one of every wine drinker’s go-to bargain reds, a section in a wine store where great value was so easily found. You could pick almost any bottle under $10 off the shelf and chances are, you’d be relatively satisfied. But now, malbec is too often hit or miss. The same malbec I loved three years ago tastes too jammy, too oaky, and not at all complex. Finding an enjoyable one for under $10 has become mission impossible.

Of course, when we talk about malbec, we’re almost always talking about malbec from Argentina. The country capitalized on this lost French variety, which was brought over from France in the mid-19th century. It’s still the main grape grown in Cahors and is allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wines, but it was Argentina that finally put malbec on the map.

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying red wines made from the indigenous grapes of Greece. I’ve tasted mostly xinomavro from Naoussa, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, and agiorgitiko from Nemea in the Peloponnese, but also little-known varieties such as limniona, mavrotragano, and mavrodaphne. While you can certainly find bottles of xinomavro and agiorgitiko on American shelves and wine lists, let’s just be clear: These are obscure wines.

Why would I recommend such obscure wines? A few weeks ago, I might have simply said: These obscure wines are fascinating and strange in the best way, and they repay an adventurous wine drinker by providing good value and deliciousness. But apparently, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, I’m all wrong.

Just the other week, while I was tasting these Greek reds, Mister Parker called out me and my kind as “Euro-elitists” and “absolutists” whose wine recommendations are “the epitome of cyber-group goose-stepping” and “Kim-Jung-unism.” Yes, seriously. He did. Right on his website, for anyone who paid $29 (for a 90-day subscription) to read.