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Wine & Spirits

Swirl, sniff, sip, search and blog

In the glut of wine websites, there's the snooty, serious and silly. Here's a guide to the best of them.

February 22, 2006|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

LET'S say that last night you had a fantastic Italian wine with your dinner at Il Grano, and you want to find out more about it. So you boot up the computer and open the Web portal and find the paper napkin you wrote the name on (never mind that Il Grano doesn't use paper napkins -- this is an Internet fantasy). Just for kicks you first Google the word "wine" -- and come back with about 150 million hits. Curious, you type in beer: fewer than half that many. Whiskey: one-tenth. Coffee comes close, and only water has more.

Fortunately your wine, a Barbera, is a little more obscure. So you type in a few keywords, and soon you're swinging from link to link on a daisy chain of references, epic histories of Italian wine, etymologies and origins of the grape itself. You find accounts of supposedly better Barberas than the one you enjoyed (with buying options, of course) as well as heated arguments to the contrary. You read about the region, the winery, the winemaker, his children and what each of them thinks about the 2002 vintage.

The Internet provides a thousand ways of looking at this Barbera, and some won't be of any use to you, but a few might end up being interesting in ways you didn't expect. This is one of the Web's great virtues, with wine especially: information that used to be the province of the few and the snooty is now, with a few clicks, available to everyone. Of course, information in such an egalitarian domain can be spotty, misleading or just discouragingly amateurish.

But good content does exist. Indeed, if you know where to look, the Web does offer indispensable resources, fascinating opinions, provocative if occasionally annoying discussions, and not least, several websites that poke holes in all that wine-induced high-mindedness.

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A domain of gurus

SEVERAL well-known wine critics have an online presence, including Robert Parker, whose website is eRobertParker.com, Stephen Tanzer, whose opinions can be accessed at wineaccess.com and L.A.-based Allen Meadows, whose site is burghound.com. All of these paid-subscription sites supplement a print edition. For fans, having a searchable online database of, say, Parker's influential opinions is probably invaluable, but it comes at a price.

For my money, the site worth paying for is jancisrobinson.com. Jancis Robinson, M.W., a critic for London's Financial Times, is the preeminent English-language wine journalist at the moment. Her breadth of knowledge is so vast she edited an encyclopedia to contain it, the 850-page "Oxford Companion to Wine," the most dogeared wine reference book on my shelf.

The website's homepage allows access to a few current articles, but the site's "Purple Pages," available with a paid subscription of about $2 a week, give access to an unfettered Jancis, with tasting notes on hundreds of wines (rated on a 20-point scale), wine essays, vintage reports, and not least, the entire "Oxford Companion to Wine."

Robinson possesses what few who write for the Internet share: economy of language. She says exactly what needs to be said and almost nothing more, except for the occasional charming Anglicism, such as her withering description of a recently sampled Barbera: "rather candified and short," she wrote. Quite.

If you don't want to shell out the quid, you might find your Barbera among the tasting notes at wine-pages.com, a free English site managed by wine writer and educator Tom Cannavan.

For years Cannavan was a columnist at Harpers, one of England's premier wine magazines, and his site is consistently entertaining, well-written and unpretentious.

The wine education pages, a series of cleareyed and instructional essays on winemaking, wine history, choosing wines, reading labels, region overviews and the like, are useful for novices and veterans alike. He even gives online quizzes, with instant results.

Beyond these features, wine-pages.com is worth visiting just for guest columnist Tom Stevenson's mind-jogging glossary of descriptive terms for wine's aromas and flavors, arranged in categories such as fruits, flowers, herbs and spices.

Under "green apple" for instance, you'll find a list of grape varieties that commonly display this quality and the name of the chemical that's responsible (malic acid, in this case). Not since Dr. Anne Noble's Aroma Wheel, devised at UC Davis in 1990, have I seen such a helpful tool for delineating wine's attributes.

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Connoisseur chat rooms

IF you wanted to tell the world about your Barbera epiphany, the place to do it would be a bulletin board.

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