SpeakEasy: Ben Carter of Benito’s Wine Reviews

In our latest edition of SpeakEasy, we catch up with Ben Carter of Benito’s Wine Reviews. Ben shares tips on finding great Memphis BBQ, aging Sutter Home White Zinfadel, and choosing the best wine to pair with a Chef Boyardee Pizza Kit.

Your blog has entered its tenth year. What was your first post about? And if you rewrote it today, would it be significantly different?

Benito’s Wine Reviews is actually my third blog. The other two are long gone, had nothing to do with wine, and to my knowledge were only read by one extremely patient friend. In January 2005, I did a simple “Hello World” post on BWR and then launched into “laundry list” posts that dominated the first year or two of the blog. I’ve been meaning to do a retrospective look at BENITO: YEAR ONE, but it takes everyone a while to find his or her voice. I have no regrets about those early, ungainly years and happily leave them public, as well as the few critical comments that were entirely deserved based on my level of knowledge at the time.

There are a lot of things I would have started doing differently early on: accepting samples (which I thought was illegal), engaging more with my readers (I took a newspaper approach and let “letters to the editor” stand without replies), and being public with my real name. It felt safe to be anonymous, but the experience has been so much more rewarding under my real name and face. Wine brings people together in joy and fellowship, and you don’t get that behind the wall of a mysterious persona.

Has wine blogging ever helped you in your job? How?

Not particularly. I work in quality assurance, which looks at a wine industry with a six to ten percent rate of cork taint with great wailing and gnashing of teeth. I get asked for wine recommendations, and occasionally get to meet with one of our corporate customers who is an enthusiast or collector and wants to talk about wine instead of the day job. I keep the two worlds pretty separate, both for HR reasons and because the two pursuits require wholly separate skill sets. The one exception is communication: Hosting wine tastings and writing publicly are great training for effective presentation skills and internal communication. I just have to remember not to end my work e-mails with my customary “Cheers.”

Has wine blogging helped you in your non-fermented-grape life? How?

It’s been an amazing way to connect with friends and family and to meet new people. I love showing up to a dinner or a party full of wine novices and being able to say, “I’ve brought a dozen wines. I just need to test a sip of each, but I’m not taking anything home with me. Also, tell me what you really think about them. Be honest, this is a safe space. Have fun with the leftovers.” I’ve also learned a tremendous amount about the world of professional writing, which was always just a distant dream for me. I’m nowhere near being able to live off my writing, but working with editors and getting those occasional paychecks is a very different experience from my blogging, one I would not be able to have had without the wine blog.

You’ve tasted everything from a dandelion wine from Ohio’s Amish country to a semi-sweet wine from Yellow Tail. Tell me about some of the most unusual wines you’ve tasted, for better or for worse.

My #1 and #2 worst wines ever were tasted while I was working in Cleveland, Ohio, and were reviewed in the same post. Soviet Champagne from Belarus and Fetească Regală from Romania. Both were sour, harsh, bizarre, and left an unpleasant aftertaste for hours afterward. On the weird front, Mississippi corn wine is something that few will ever get a chance to try, and East Tennessee apple wine is equally rare but quite delightful. I also must mention the legendary 1993 Sutter Home White Zinfandel some friends and I tried—in 2007. It was something that had gotten lost in the back of a bar cabinet and had to be sampled. It has become the punch line to many jokes within that particular group of friends, many of whom have outstanding cellars.

Clams and Tuna Crudo

We were both on a trip to New York sponsored by Snooth. One of the wine tasting seminars was led by Aldo Sohm, chef sommelier at Le Bernardin. What would it be like to go head-to-head with him in a Grüner Veltliner smackdown?

I’d have to forfeit early to spare any bystanders the shame of my crushing defeat, except that Sohm was exceptionally nice and I’m sure it would be tough for him to deliver a TKO against an unmatched opponent.

I’ve always viewed wine as equal parts food, geography, and history, three subjects I find endlessly fascinating. Wine can’t be separated from any of them, and my own curiosity is so strong that I can’t imagine focusing too closely on any one area of any of those categories. Yet I have tremendous respect for those who have the discipline to become masters in the study of the classic wine regions.

Benito vs. the Pizza Kit is, to my mind, your most immortal post. For the uninformed or uninitiated, explain the slice of nostalgia that is the Chef Boyardee Pizza Kit. And give me the ideal wine pairing.

It would be hard to beat the straw-bottle Chianti I used for that post. That little pizza kit was a favorite Saturday evening treat when I was a kid. Years later when I’d be keeping my own sourdough starters and making artsy pizzas at home topped with clams and arugula, I would still think about helping Dad with the Chef Boyardee pizza kit. When I wrote the piece I hadn’t had one in decades, and I wrote it not to make fun of the kit, but to see how it held up over the years and to enjoy it for the first time with wine. The piece was a little goofy but lots of fun, and I continue to get e-mails about it to this day. If anything, it speaks to my firm belief that if we want a vibrant wine culture in the United States, we can’t just focus on Bordeaux futures but have to embrace table wines with everyday food.

OK, I’m in Memphis. Where do we go for BBQ? What is Memphis BBQ? And what wine do you like to drink with it? Zinfandel: too hot and boozy for BBQ?

In brief:

1.) The best hole-in-the-wall BBQ joints don’t allow alcohol and aren’t tourist traps, so I’d pick the Germantown Commissary, though Central BBQ is a close second and doesn’t mind if you BYOB.

2.) Mostly pork, with sweet molasses-based sauces as well as dry rub ribs. But there’s variety, especially once you get into the realm of wild game. I helped judge a church BBQ competition once and had sampled the smoked meat of over a dozen animals before tagging-out.

3.) Zinfandel is the traditional choice, but for anything with a dark bark on it and a heavy smoke flavor, cheap and young Cabernet Sauvignon is great. The blackened crust numbs your tongue and completely changes your palate (i.e. no tannins, only fruit). When it’s hot, I love serving ice cold Cava or Prosecco. The crisp acidity cuts through the grease; I often refer to it as “grape soda” to surprised dinner guests.

Where do you like to drink wine in Memphis? Do you have a favorite restaurant or wine bar? Bottle shop?

I don’t eat out that often and rarely order wine. I love cooking and I’ve always got a ton of samples that need to be tried, so I tend to stay in or share the wines with friends over dinner parties. Occasionally I get a craving for something like Sancerre, which almost never shows up as a sample on the doorstep, so I’ll hit one of three cherished wine shops: Kirby Wines & Liquors, Great Wines and Spirits, and Joe’s Wines and Liquors. Disclaimer: The shops are run by friends, but all have great selection, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and an approach that caters equally to novices and expert collectors.

Who inspired you to start blogging, and who continues to inspire you in the world of wine?

Back in 2005 there weren’t a lot of wine blogs. I started because I was attending a lot of free Saturday wine tastings and wanted to keep notes on what I liked and didn’t like. I had no expectations that anyone would it, and it took a few years before I got noticed by the wine industry and the wine writing community. In the second half of my wine writing life, I’ve learned a lot from Fredric Koeppel of Bigger Than Your Head. Fredric was the wine and restaurant reviewer for the local paper when I was younger, and we grew to be good friends over the years as he branched into blogging and I made moves into freelancing and more serious writing.

Of course, I also have to thank my father, Allen Carter, for introducing me to wine in the European style while I was still in high school and passionate about cooking, and Mike Whitfield, a friend of my father’s who has been in the wine business for two decades and provided me with many amazing and positive wine experiences early on. Mike also taught me that above all else, this subject can and should be fun.