By Elizabeth DurandJJust because you don’t want to spend your entire bonus on one bottle of wine (though if you do, more power to you), doesn’t mean you can’t unlock the secrets of this drink of the gods—at least, not if Mark Oldman has anything to say about it.
Oldman isn’t your typical wine aficionado. In fact, he’s pretty much the opposite, which very well may be the key to his success. Young, fun and (gasp!) down-to-earth, he scours the globe demystifying reds, whites and everything in between for everyone from world-class restaurateurs to private wine enthusiasts to those who don’t know a Merlot from a Malbec. As far as he’s concerned, by the way, there’s no shame in that.
Oldman’s expertise has impressed even the most knowledgeable connoisseurs and celebrity chefs, and landed him teaching spots at some of the world’s most prestigious food and wine festivals. But beyond making the rounds on the international food and wine circuit, writing a few hit books and hosting a slew of private seminars, he genuinely seems to love a great glass of wine. What’s more, he’s genuinely excited to share his insider knowledge of both the drink and the industry with anyone who wants to learn. So grab a glass and get ready to toast the man who’s about to raise your wine IQ by… well… a lot.
You have a very unique job. How did you get started?
My love of wine originally started in college.
So, no Natty Ice for you?
(Laughs.) Well, I was at Stanford and there were all these winemakers around. I thought, let’s get some of them down here and we’ll have events, with students who are of age, of course.
(Laughs.) I thought we’d take dues from the students to pay the winemakers to come, but then this great thing happened: we didn’t have to pay them at all. They were happy to come and show off their wines, and we were happy to learn. It was a win-win. I ended up bringing in over thirty winemakers, mostly from Napa, and it just sort of took on a life of its own, eventually becoming the Stanford Wine Circle.
And from there you went on to teach?
Yes, I sort of followed the ignorance-is-bliss approach and started teaching wine at restaurants that were known for their wine lists. But then, you know, there’s this weird thing that comes up because the restaurant doesn’t want you teaching its customers how to order cheaper bottles that taste better. (Smiles.)
So what’s your approach?
Most people who teach wine cater to people who are already really into wine, so the focus is on the expensive, inaccessible stuff. It’s like an art advisor who’s only interested in pieces that you’ll have to buy a new home to house.
I realized this was a huge problem so I focus on making it accessible for everyone. Whether you’ve got a huge wine cellar and you’ve been collecting for years, or you’re… well, like you… no offense—
You can learn more and enjoy wine more. I love when people realize things like, “Oh, you can have red wine with fish!” or just, “This doesn’t have to be so complicated.”
What’s the most important thing people need to understand about wine that they don’t?
Price is not always proportional to quality. I think the real find, the best find, is that great $10 bottle that drinks like an $80 bottle. That proportionality is the fundamental rule about how to judge a wine—but the people who market wine and sell wine don’t want you to know that. It’s one of the industry’s dirty little secrets.
That sounds like something you would address in your book, “Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine.” What was the industry reaction to the title?
There were old guard people who said, “Wine isn’t something you want to outsmart; it’s something you want to put up on a pedestal.” Basically, they were saying that we should all “kiss wine’s a**.” Obviously, I disagree.
What are your best tips for serving wine at a party?
Don’t give people too much choice! They can be just as nervous as you are, so giving them too many options just complicates things for everyone. In general, I just like to have a bubbly, a white and a red. Or, better yet, I’ll just do a bubbly and a red.
For the bubbly, I recommend a sparkling wine that’s not Champagne. Gruet (sparkling wine from New Mexico) might be the best value. It looks French because it has a French label, but it talks southwest because it’s priced like a wine from New Mexico should be priced. Cava and Prosecco are also great options.
But isn’t Prosecco ghetto?
That’s exactly what the Champagne people want you to think.
And what about the red?
I recommend a Portuguese red because you want it to be a soft red. You don’t want anything edgy. You want it to be something that people can drink on its own. Go to your local wine shop and ask them to show you a Portuguese red under $15/bottle. If they really know what they’re doing, they’ll be able to find you one under $10.
What’s up with orange wine?
(Oldman can’t help but rolls his eyes.) It was hip for like five minutes a while back. It’s from Italy or Slovenia and what happens is there is some pigment left in the wine—not enough pigment to make it red, just enough to make it orange.
It has this overly tangy taste, but it was ordained the flavor-of-the-moment by wine writers like, a year ago, so then every place you went, the sommelier was pushing this orange wine until one day a few writers were finally like, “You know this stuff doesn’t taste that good.” Now you can’t find it anymore.
You sound like you really miss it.
(Another eye roll—this time with a smile.)
You must have an opinion on screw tops.
Embrace them! Sure, the sound of a screw top isn’t as romantic as the sound of a cork, but screw tops are amazing.
What’s the worst word you’ve ever heard to describe a bottle of wine?
“Diffident” is up there. If you haven’t taken the SATs recently, you probably forgot what it means—but it means kind of shy. I’m not sure how a wine is shy.
Also, one time in France, a sommelier told me a Riesling tasted “nervous.” That one had me stumped. But even that’s not as bad as one of the best winemakers in the world who described his wine as “smelling like chicken sh*t.” Keep in mind, this wasn’t a cheap bottle.
Even for a cheap bottle, that doesn’t sound so appealing.
That’s the thing though, there’s this element in the wine community of that naughty aspect in wine drinking. People say some of the best wines in the world taste like “sweated sex,” like they have this funk to them that’s kind of dirty.
Speaking of the wine community being kind of dirty, what’s it like on the celebrity food and wine circuit?
It’s not dirty! Well, not that dirty. At least, not for me, because I’m too busy working. It’s like, one day you get this phone call out of the blue and they ask you to come, so you go and you do your best and then just hope that they ask you back.
The mega-watt names—the Tom Colicchios of the world—they usually appear once or twice, but the people like me teach four or five times in a few days, so when my class is done, I’m back at my hotel relaxing and gearing up for the next round. I know people who can stay out all night and still be fresh for the next day, but that’s not me.
I love wine, and I love my job, but at the end of the day, it is still a job and I want to do my very best for everyone who shows up for my seminars. I like to under-promise and over-deliver.
And always avoid being diffident or nervous.
Hanging at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles:
How is this for a bar trick?
Want to learn more from Oldman? Check him out at www.markoldman.com