Swirl, sniff, sip, search and blog

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.

Philadelphia lawyer Mark Squires manages the online bulletin board for Robert Parker, and at 9,000 members, 77,000 threads and posts approaching 1 million, it is by far the most far-flung and heavily trafficked wine bulletin board in the ether. So if you wanted advance word on how the 2000 Burgundies are tasting, you can probably find a tasting note or 50 here; or get a sense of how your stash of '94 Dominus is aging from notes based on a vertical tasting a member conducted recently. You may or may not choose to voice your opinion on the raging "Ugliest Wine Label" discussion along the way.

The best and worst thing about eBob is that everybody contributes: You'll find winemakers, sommeliers and serious aficionados making regular posts; Parker posts a thread from time to time. But there is often the feeling that you've just stumbled onto a room full of men who haven't quite learned how to play well together: The posts can be arrogant, peevish, sycophantic and hysterically passionate.

There are less-trafficked bulletin boards -- the rather geeky winetherapy.com, and the regionally oriented westcoastwine.net have far fewer signal-to-noise issues -- but who can resist watching a good tantrum now and then?

As you delve into wine blogs through a clearinghouse website such as wineblogwatch.arrr.net, what will amaze you is the variety, intensity and occasionally the hilarity of wine-world views on display. The ones I like to read are more curious about wine than opinionated, more about wonder than authority.

Vinography.com, by San Franciscan Alder Yarrow, has spirited opinions on everything from corkage to screw caps. Yarrow is exactly the kind of blogger who would write an opus on your coveted Barbera -- witness his recent tasting note on a wine from Rhone producer Auguste Clape, a 1,000-word entry at once preposterously overlong and completely absorbing.

Joe Dressner is a Manhattan wine importer who shares his fairly irascible opinions at joedressner.com, where I recently read a stimulating discussion on the origin of the word "spoofulation" (roughly, manipulating a wine to the point where it tastes "fake"). I happen to really like reading Dressner for his umbrage -- if he hates something (such as spoofulation) he's not afraid to say it, noisily.

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Tools of the trade

IF your Barbera was domestic, winerelease.com might alert you as to when the winery plans to release the next vintage. Localwineevents.com, meanwhile, listing wine events for dozens of North American cities, might give you a few occasions to enjoy it. Travelenvoy.com has the best directory of American wineries, period. (Its Italian directory is a work in progress).

Wine-searcher.com and winezap.com are designed to help you find that Barbera and compare prices and availability across the country. Type in its name and you'll get a national list of participating retailers who carry that wine, with prices and availability. In most cases, you're just a few clicks away from a purchase.

For more on the grape itself and where it's grown on this continent, check out appellationamerica.com. This site has devoted itself to describing and mapping all of the appellations in North America -- that's the where of wine, that sense of place in a bottle that fascinates all of the writers, critics, sommeliers of this world. It surveys the whole continent, not just California, Oregon and Washington, including regions that don't normally get much attention (such as Hermann, the Missouri AVA, home of Norton, the grape which resembles Barbera).

But perhaps its most entertaining feature is its collection of "varietal characters" -- grapes personified in illustrations by Tyler Landry that would make Maurice Sendak chuckle -- accompanied by some appropriately purple prose.

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All in good taste

FINALLY, what is the Internet if not diverting? One of its greatest virtues, after all, is its unqualified egalitarianism; so for every puffed-up wine site, there's another with a sharp object, ready to skewer the snobs.

Sean Thackrey is no snob. His wines, though, named for constellations such as Pleiades (which has Barbera in the blend), made in the Marin County surf town of Bolinas, might have been cult well before the term was invented. At his very thoughtful website, wine-maker.net, you'll find something he calls "the Thackrey Library," a beautifully designed, well-reproduced archive of early books and manuscripts relating to the subject of winemaking and enjoyment.

For some help taking the hot air out of pretentious tasting notes, click on Greg Sumner's random tasting note generator, www.gmon.com/tech/stng.shtml. Here's an example: "A mouthful of varnish, structured pork and second-rate melted crayon. Drink now through eternity." Choose normal or extra silly.

Or to simply read some silly tasting notes with a poetic license all their own, have a look at Lane Steinberg's marvelous website, redwinehaiku.blogspot.com. You may not agree that a certain Barbera's plump texture is "like a big round grandma/that never lets go," but you'll be amused nevertheless.

Or better yet, grab that Barbera, a glass, a laptop and an hour of careful attention, and see what you come up with on your own.

And be sure to share.

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The best wine-soaked websites

appellationamerica.com. This site maps and chronicles North American appellations.

burghound.com. A paid site for all things Burgundian; includes incisive vintage reports and tasting notes.

erobertparker.com. The influential critic's paid site, with a searchable database of scores and tasting notes; location of robertparker.com/bboard/boardintro.asp.

America's largest and most active wine bulletin board.

gmon.com/tech/stng.shtml. Never at a loss for words: a random tasting note generator.

jancisrobinson.com. A combination free/paid site from one of the world's most erudite and entertaining critics.

joedressner.com. A blog as literate as it is opinionated, from an importer of French and Italian wines.

localwineevents.com. A comprehensive national calendar of wine and food events.

redwinehaiku.blogspot.com. Often hilarious, sometimes even accurate, tasting notes as poetry.

travelenvoy.com. The country's best winery directory, bar none.

vinography.com. Notes, raves and rants from a passionate Bay Area blogger.

westcoastwine.net. A San Francisco-based bulletin board frequented by a fair number of winemakers, with an emphasis on the California scene.

wineaccess.com/expert/tanzer. A paid site linked to Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar (via wineaccess.com, and shopping site). Tanzer's tasting notes are no-nonsense and reliable.

wineblogwatch.arrr.net. A website that serves as a link to other wine blogs.

wine-maker.net. Sean Thackrey's winery website includes historical texts and sources.

wine-pages.com. From an English wine writer: extensive notes, award-winning columnists, fine educational essays and quizzes.

winerelease.com. A calendar of release dates for many American and Canadian wines.

winetherapy.com. A bulletin board with a fairly high geek factor.

wine-searcher.com. Where to find and buy wines and what to pay for them; an especially strong regional search engine.

winezap.com. Similar to wine-searcher, with more search options, including by grape variety and food pairing.

-- Patrick Comiskey

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