Arts & Entertainment: Wine Economist takes the mystery out of wine selection

Valentine's Day is coming up and you're planning the perfect romantic dinner, but you've got so many questions about picking the right wine.

What's the difference between Shiraz and Syrah? What kind are you supposed to serve with chicken vindaloo? And is that fancy Zinfandel you've been eyeing really worth 200 bones? Aggghh! Better check with the Wine Economist.

That would be Tacoma blogger, author and economics professor Mike Veseth, who sums up the angst many consumers feel in his new book, “Extreme Wine: Searching the World for the Best, the Worst, the Outrageously Cheap, the Insanely Overpriced, and the Undiscovered” (Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95):

“There are lots of wines out there, and consumers are worried that they are choosing poorly, paying too much, or getting advice from biased or incompetent wine gurus. The search for the best is often motivated by fear of the worst.”

Veseth will be on hand to talk about “Extreme Wine,” and then take questions starting at 7 p.m. on Feb. 13 at King's Books, 218 St. Helen's St., in Tacoma. In the interest of getting our own dinner plans rolling, we jumped the gun with a few questions of our own.

Tacoma Weekly: What are the main points you want people to take away from your talk? 

Veseth: I'm interested in helping people understand and appreciate more about wine and encouraging them to try new things and enjoy the experience. I am a storyteller; and while wine itself is a good thing, wine and a story about the wine is even better!

TW: Your latest book covers “extreme” wines. What counts as extreme wine?

Veseth: Wine itself is pretty extreme. Basically, it is fermented fruit juice, but it comes in thousands of variations at prices ranging from $2 to $200 to $2000 to ... well, the sky is the limit.

In “Extreme Wine,” I try to examine as many different extremes as I can. My method is simple: if you want to know what's happening in wine today, look at the extremes, where the pace of change is the fastest.

TW: What are the most pervasive myths people embrace when it comes to selecting a good wine?

Veseth: The biggest myth is, surely, that more expensive wines are necessarily better than cheaper ones. I argue that while economy wines may not necessarily be the best on earth, they are almost never the worst wines available. I would like consumers to trust their own tastes about wine and not worry so much about price or wine ratings.

TW: People who read your book may feel a little better about bringing “Two Buck Chuck” to their next dinner party. What are some of the biggest bargains in wine?

Veseth: Many Washington wines are great values! You really cannot go wrong with products from Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, the Magnificent Wine Company (the maker of House Wine) or Pacific Rim.

In general, I suggest that consumers try to ignore "top 100" lists and look for wines from unfamiliar grapes or unfamiliar places. That's often where the best values are found. Sherry is a bargain category, too. Riesling is a great bargain choice; it comes in many styles, you can buy really good Washington Riesling for less than $10, and some of the best in the U.S. for about $20.

TW: Surprisingly, you write that Mad Dog and Night Train are “far from the world's worst fortified wines.” What's the worst wine you've ever sampled?

Veseth: I have a long list of "worst wines," some of which I reveal in “Extreme Wine.” One of my all-time least-favorite wines was an early effort from a Chinese producer. My tasting note was "ashtray, coffee grounds and urinal crust." Sound good to you? Many Chinese wines today are excellent, but that one was a real loser.

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