How many times does it happen? You're in a fancy restaurant trying to entertain a client or impress a date. At first, things are going swimmingly, but then the dreaded moment arrives. A sommelier takes your order and spoils your composure when you can't distinguish a Cabernet from a Chardonnay.
Lots of people, even many who enjoy drinking wine, feel stupid when it comes to choosing an appropriate bottle. After all, many oenophiles have a deserved reputation for being snooty, and many wine books are rather dry. Moreover not everyone can attend wine tastings.
These days people equipped with multimedia personal computers can run their own tastings. Microsoft recently uncorked the Microsoft Wine Guide on CD-ROM, a splendid introduction containing engaging videos with connoisseur Oz Clarke. Food&Wine's Wine Tasting disk from Times Mirror Multimedia serves up its own expert in Steve Olson, an independent wine consultant. Wines of the World from Multicom Publishing includes recommendations from Ronn Wiegand, editor of Restaurant Wine newsletter.
Microsoft's simple-to-use disk is the classiest of the bunch. When you want to launch a particular video, you just click on one of the small, circular pictures of Clarke that pops up on the screen. In a segment about the appearance of wine, Clarke tells you how color serves as an indicator of a wine's age and taste. Clarke also takes you on a tour of 18 wines ranging from French Pinot Noir to Australian Shiraz.
Microsoft's CD-ROM includes a strong section on reading wine labels. You can click on different portions of 31 labels for an explanation of certain terms. There's also a 6,000-entry wine database, which you can search by any combination of region, grape variety, star rating (from Clarke and other experts), and food match. One flaw: The CD-ROM I tested crashed a number of times for no apparent reason.
TASTER'S CHOICE. In the Food&Wine disk, Olson has selected (and tells you where to buy) 48 wines representing an array of varietals and growing regions. These are grouped into eight flights (four reds, four whites). Users can rate such variables as brightness and color, then compare their benchmarks to Olson's. There is also a taster's-profile questionnaire. After you answer such questions as "Do you like the taste of fresh fruit, pound cake, or a hot fudge sundae?" Olson suggests wines you might enjoy.
However, the Food&Wine disk was riddled with sloppy defects. It moved along at a snail's pace on my 486 PC, with badly out-of-sync videos. The "g" in "Wine Tasting" was dropped when Windows created a program group with the software's name. And though the specs say the program will run on 4 megabytes of RAM, you won't be able to view its videos on anything less than 8 megabytes.
The best part of Multicom's Wines of the World is a fine video session on wine tasting with master sommelier Fred Dame. Dame goes through five reds and five whites. Unfortunately, much else about the CD-ROM is disappointing. Its interface is cumbersome, with an unfriendly text block that scrolls on the right portion of the screen and a picture or video box on the left. A database of 28,000 wines from Wiegand's newsletter and The Wine Connoisseurs' Companion can be plumbed by country of origin, type, cost, and quality, or any combination thereof, but is hard to use. I had to go into the "help" screen to determine what the rating systems used to evaluate each wine were based on.
I also didn't appreciate that a winemaking video on the Multicom disk was a promotional clip produced for Taylor vineyards. Still, while Microsoft's entry was the most pleasing, all three programs included information on wines of all prices that could help newcomers. Indeed, the disks are most enjoyable with a glass of Merlot.
Wine Country On a Disk
PROGRAM STREET PRICE COMMENTS
FOOD & WINE'S $30 Users can rate wines on color, brightness,
WINE TASTING and other variables and compare notes with
TIMES MIRROR MULTIMEDIA wine expert Steve Olson.
MICROSOFT WINE $40 Includes videos, tasting tips, and recom-
GUIDE mendations from expert Oz Clarke. Has
MICROSOFT interactive atlas of wine regions.
WINES OF THE $40 Excellent video on tasting wines with
WORLD sommelier Fred Dame. Has database of
MULTICOM PUBLISHING 28,000 wines but is hard to use.