Doug Frost is a Kansas City author who writes and lectures about wine, beer and spirits. He passed the rigorous Master Sommelier (MS) examination and two years later became America’s eighth Master of Wine (MW). He is one of only three people in the world to have achieved both these remarkable distinctions, and he’s sincerely a nice guy. Doug is also the author of three books on wine including “Far From Ordinary: The Spanish Wine Guide.” He is a contributor to the Oxford Companion of Wine, and writes about wine and spirits for many publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Underground Wine Journal, Drinks International, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wines & Vines, Wines & Spirits, Cheers Magazine, Santé Magazine, and Epicurious.com, and he is the beverage columnist for the James Beard award-winning food section of the Kansas City Star.
As a Master Sommelier, and Master of Wine, what are the specific strengths you possess which allowed you to reach those levels of expertise?
Oh, I always think a lot of this stuff is overblown. Not that the two exams aren't difficult; of course, everyone knows they are. But it seems to me is that all it proves is that you're good at passing exams. And the scope of the exams covers the kind of stuff that was always up my alley: lots of tasting (who doesn't like that part?), lots of wine service testing (I spent years in restaurants), tightly defined essay writing (I like those sorts of logic challenges) and perhaps most of all, useless minutia. I honestly believe that anyone can train themselves to pass these exams. But I guess the one place where I will admit a difference between me and other, normal people is that after hundreds of wines in a few days, and tons of reading and writing in a given week, I'm not bored by it all. I'm not tired of it. After some thirty-five years in the business, the whole subject of alcohol beverage continues to fascinate me. And it tastes good too. Maybe I like the buzz.
What was your impetus to pursue a career in the wine industry? If not wine what might you have chosen instead?
Like a lot of my peers in this business, I started out in theater. I'm afraid I wasn’t getting very far and like all out of work actors, I was working in restaurants. But within a week or two of starting at my first white tablecloth establishment, I fell into wine, courtesy of a great guy (now the owner of Lang & Reed Winery – a great Cabernet Franc producer) named John Skupny. He was the sommelier at the restaurant and he took me to some wine tastings and I was hooked. Truthfully, at first I jumped into the MW and MS programs because I wanted to write and I couldn't get any attention from anyone – what could anyone in Kansas City possibly know about wine? Once I had the titles, I was able to pursue that and that was my first motivation. But as I met my teachers in those programs, those people who were my mentors, my motivation changed – I wanted to be a peer of all these great people. That remains my motivation everyday.
Rising wine alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are an on-going debate. What are your thoughts on the subject?
First off, we have to remember that there is no one universal palate (sorry, Mr. Parker), so it's okay that some people like high alcohol wines (that would be you again, Mr. Parker) and some people don't. Amongst others, Parker has encouraged winemakers to make bigger, lusher, more powerful wines. That's because he likes those kinds of wines and lots of other people do too. He's not wrong for those people or for himself. But there are many other people for whom his palate is not ideal; no great sin in that. Like I say, the Parker bashers out there have it wrong: they want to substitute one dictator for another. The truth is, we all like different things because we all have different palates. So with that as background, let's state for the record that some people don't see these higher alcohol wines as a problem. Sure, most people think 16.8% Pinot Noir is a stupid idea; I agree with them. But lots of people like them, especially if you don't put the actual alcohol level on the label. The idea that 14.5% alcohol is too high but 14.4% is just fine (to paraphrase some writers) is, charitably, bullshit. It depends upon the palate and it depends upon the wine. I've tasted 14.3% alcohol wines that taste hot and I've had 15.5% alcohol wines that don't. Like all things in wine (and taste), nuance is true; hard rules are false.
Finally, Parker isn't to blame, not only because he's just writing about things he loves and that's what he should do, but also because alcohol levels have been going up even when the sugar levels in the grapes remain at the same level. Why? Everything in the winery is better handled now, and the yeast have become more productive in that environment.
That said, I cannot fathom why a winemaker needs to harvest grapes at 31 or 32 Brix (and plenty do so). That's just dumb.
What specific wine varieties would you like to see the public embrace more fully, and why?
I'm quite content with the buying public's embrace of new grapes: for instance, there is more Albariño sold in the U.S. than in Spain. Gruner Veltliner has gone from the sommelier's unknown mistress to a celebrated entertainer. The so-called Millennials seem incredibly open-minded about grapes so I hope they'll keep discovering Mencia, Mourvedre, Godello, Nero d'Avola, Assyrtiko, Agiorgitiko, and a thousand others that I love. Even the hybrid grapes, that have far so long languished in the hinterlands, are getting attention. Vidal Blanc, which makes brilliant dessert wine, is finally getting its due and I hope Chambourcin, Vignoles, Traminette, Norton and lots of others will join in, whether in versions sweet or dry.
There has been much written and debated about the 100 point rating scale. Some say it has empowered consumers, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wine. What do you see as being the long term impact, if any, of the 100 point rating system?
It's dumb, in a word. It implies that there is one palate (see above) when there are as many different palates as there are people (with all due respect to one of my mentors, Tim Hanni). Hanni is helping to open people's eyes, but the simple fact is that the people scoring some tannic monster 100 points and a soft and gentle white wine 82 points simply don't like mild wines. And most people, I am utterly convinced of this, DO like mild wines. That tannic monster is ideal for someone like Jim Laube who apparently has incredible resistance to bitterness. Most people don't. They find bitterness unpleasant and they don't like the wines that get 100 point scores. Once they taste what passes for good wine (at least amongst the dominant writers, all of whom seem to relish strong bitterness in their wines), most people are bewildered by wine and opt for a cocktail or a beer.
So there you are. A 100-point system is built on the idea that one palate is an ideal representation of ALL palates, and it's not. What is 90 points to one person will taste like 80 points to someone else.
Uniformly, where are the best wines coming from, regionally, in the U.S.? And outside of the U.S.?
I tend to spend my money in the Northwest, Washington for Bordeaux and Rhone varieties and Oregon for Pinot Noir. I follow some of the more experimental producers in California and frankly find that it comes down to what excites me. That's different than what excites other people. I buy Ridge Zin and Montebello. I avidly follow Randall Graham’s wacky adventures. I buy wines from cooler sites along the California coast, Sonoma to Santa Maria, but spend more of my money in the south than the north coast.
I love New York Rieslings, Michigan Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, Virginia Cabernet Franc, Missouri Chambourcin, Texas Muscat, Colorado and Arizona Syrah and, well, you get the idea. I've just gotten back from Greece; I'm headed to Russia and I need to get back to Spain and Italy. I'll be back in Australia and New Zealand in January and I wish to hell I could get back to South Africa, a place that fascinates me. If you want a fight, just try touching one of my prized German Rieslings, vintage Madeira’s, or bottles of Burgundy in my basement without permission. I am an ADHD wine drinker.
For the average wine consumer, what is the greatest obstacle to their enjoyment of wine?
Access and openness – people want to TRY wine, not invest in it. Real restaurants and retail shops (at least where stupid liquor laws don’t prohibit it) should offer tastes of wines, lots of small glasses. It's the wonderful part about alcohol beverage: it's relatively stable after you open it, so OPEN IT, already! While I might vilify systems like the 100-point scale or snotty waiters or retail clerks, those are easily remedied by giving people a taste. Then let them make up their own minds and reward them for it.
Do wine writers, wine magazines and wine blogs commit a disservice to consumers by over-rhapsodizing about intricacies in wine most consumers don’t care about? (yeast strains, volatile acidity, clone selection, etc.) Or is the minutia about wine nonetheless important to their wine understanding and enjoyment?
There is always a disconnect between wine geeks and normal people; it's why there should be writers for wine geeks and writers for regular folk. But (and I know this likely puts me in the group of wine writers who are regularly mocked by the mainstream media) I think that everybody can experience flavor and aroma, not just so-called trained palates. I've seen it over and over again. I think we should focus upon flavor, no matter how crazy it sounds at times, and let people find things they love. The scientific and numerical minutia is for geeks only.
It seems as if the wine industry is going the way of the economy in that wine prices increasingly show a financial disparity; the wealthy can afford a $100 Cab, while most consumers are dolling out $10 for another Cab. With so many wines on the market from every corner of the globe, can the wine industry as a whole sustain itself in the long run?
Oh, yes, that's why there are wines from every corner of the globe. They're selling. Yes, of course, we're over-built right now and, yes, French vignerons are probably suffering for it, but the market is still thirsty. We want new wines, new grapes and new flavors and we will reward people who can do it at a reasonable price. I might be depressed if everything were going the way of $3 bottles but it's not. People are spending $8 or $10 or $12 or even $15 and they shouldn't have to spend more than that to find deliciousness. To hell with $100 bottles.
When you’re home in Kansas, away from work, and just hanging out, what do you like to drink?
Everything I've mentioned above, as well as beer, tea, espresso, cocktails, many more wines, Tequila and other spirits and especially, mezcal. Unless I'm drinking something else. Oh, yeah, I like water.