The Forbidden Wine (or “How Can I Drink This Without My Wife Finding Out?”)

March 2, 2011

Leaving me alone in the house with an expensive bottle of newly acquired Brunello is like throwing a Dungeons & Dragons nerd in the closet with an unopened Wrath of Ashardolon board game (yes that includes all forty-two plastic hero and monster figurines). Immediately, the wine-lubed gears in my brain begin to turn, plotting a way for me to open and drink the bottle, which my wife has clearly reserved for a special occasion. Could I drink the bottle when she’s out, get rid of the empty, then pretend to know nothing of the missing wine as if we never had it in the first place? No, that only seems to work for little things like leftover chocolate cake. It clearly didn’t work with our tax return money.

The little devil on my left shoulder suddenly sounded so much more reasonable than the goody-two-shoes angel on my right and I began to formulate more complex schemes. Maybe, just maybe, I could pull off some kind of an elaborate switch. I’ll take the cheap red blend out of the bottle and switch it with the Brunello! Then—“Should we drink the cheap blend this evening, honey?” That could work…for a while. But eventually we’d entertain and I’d get sent to retrieve the Brunello. I’d have to make that long, gloomy walk to the wine closet feeling every bit like I did in fourth grade on that long, gloomy walk to the principal’s office. Then, at the table, as I felt my face getting red and my wife’s eyes boring into me, our guests would politely talk about how they remembered the Brunello tasting so much more complex the last time they drank it .

No, until I think of a more brilliant David Copperfield-like scam, I’m stuck here in the house with the coveted wine, always within reach but always forbidden. So close yet so far away. It is for this reason that finding a great sub-twenty dollar wine is so fun: No scams are required to drink them. This week’s recommendation is priced to be enjoyed on any occasion—even without the wife’s permission.

Cannonball 2007, Cabernet Sauvignon ($16.99): A dark, well-rounded wine from California. I tasted dark fruit and smokiness with not too much oak. It’s very big but still controlled and complex–like the retired football player who becomes a concert pianist. Cannonball is good on its own or with a juicy steak.

Wine Snobs and Fruit Roll-Ups

November 24, 2010

I was recently at a wine tasting in a local liquor store when I heard the guy who was pouring samples telling customers he tasted “nuances of wet earth” in one of the wines. Yeah, nuances of wet earth. Okay, it’s not an uncommon descriptor for wine, and there can be some pretty weird flavor profiles that people taste. I get it.  It just seemed out of place in a setting where most of the people there had a twelve pack of Bud Light in their hands. But when one customer noted that the wine tasted like a Fruit Roll-Up, the pourer jumped in saying, “I don’t think that was the winemaker’s intent. Most wine drinkers taste earthier flavors”.   

 What!?? Waaayyy–eeeet just a second here, Thurston Howell! I hate to break this to you but you’re just the guy that somebody paid to pour the wine. You can say what you taste in the glass but you don’t get to tell us what we taste when we drink this stuff. Someone, please tell this guy the point of wine is to enjoy yourself, not to elevate your status in some geeky, head-of-the-class, pseudo teacher’s pet, elitist sort of way. All this guy needed was a monocle and cane to complete his pompous-ass attire. In one quick statement, he just turned off a potential customer to wine and completely erased all the work the industry has done in the last fifteen years to rid itself of that snobby image.  

  “Tell you what,” I thought. “You can stay here and try to sell your wine by showing everyone you’re a jerk. Good luck with that. Me, I’ll be next door with my loud friends sitting belly up to the bar, drinking wine that tastes like Fruit Roll-Ups, trying to belch the phrase ‘nuances of wet earth’.”

 As you drink this week’s recommendation, remember that nobody can tell you what you like, don’t like, should like, or for that matter, what you taste in a wine.   

 Foxglove 2007, Cabernet Savignon ($16.00): Finding a good California Cabernet in this price range can be tough sometimes. I like this one because I taste more than just one flavor when I drink it. On one hand I taste bigger flavors. One might describe them as, I don’t know, nuances of wet earth? On the other hand I can taste something fruity as well: Red cherries maybe–but if you’re getting Fruit Roll-Ups, that’s cool too.

What Can S’mores Tell Us About Wine?

October 15, 2010

In an effort to make the standard s’more a better choice for a camping snack, I attempted to improve or substitute all three ingredients–graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows with something healthier. The new packages listed all kinds of benefits. Below are the changes or substitutions I made and a brief description of how they differed from the original.  

 The graham crackers: Substituted with whole wheat and trans fat free graham crackers. This is the only snack whose flavor profile is based on gravel.

 The chocolate: Replaced with carob. Carob is a substitute for chocolate in the sense that Will Purdue was a substitute for Michael Jordan.

 The marshmallows: Substituted with sugar free marshmallows. They leave a persistent chemical taste stuck in your head that is more difficult to get out than that song “Muskrat Love.”

 I roasted the new marshmallows using the same formula we all do: 1) Starting slowly and holding them near the fire so they turn that golden brown color. 2) Losing patience and moving them directly into the fire. 3) Urgently jerking them back out when they burst into a hissing ball of flame. 4) Frantically blowing on them hard enough to burst an ear drum so as to extinguish the aforementioned hissing ball of flame.      5) Deciding the one tiny white corner that is still not a charcoal colored cinder can be turned to a delicious golden brown by again patiently holding the marshmallows near the fire. 6) Sticking them back in by the fire to begin the entire process all over again.

When they were done, I slopped the molten, ash filled cream on the Will Purdue/gravel cracker sandwich and placed another gravel cracker on top. I then bit into something about as pleasant as an African civil war.

 In spite of the improvements listed on the ingredients’ packaging, the changes could not be considered an upgrade to the s’more’s good name (unless increasing the price to $12 each is an improvement).

 Wine has similar upgrades on its packaging to be wary of. The terms “Old vine” or “Reserve” on a label does not necessarily mean it’s an improvement. Although it can be a step up for some producers, the terms have no legal or agreed upon definition. This week’s recommendation uses no such terms.

 Dry Creek Vineyard 2006, Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.99): Packed with coffee, tobacco, and chocolate covered cherries, it sort of reminds me of some of my camping trips in college.

Lots of Wine but no Relief at the Wine Show

September 30, 2010

Last week I attended a wine tasting hosted by a large local distributor. The show was huge. Every varietal, every country, and every price point was represented. Below is a rough outline of my evening.

 7:00: I sign in. The woman at the table informs me the restrooms are toward the back. I make a mental note to hit them later. I taste at table one.

 7:05: One of the first tables is tasting beer. A small group of guys stands nearby talking about football. I’m tasting wine tonight. I move on, keeping one eye open for a restroom. I taste at table nine.

 7:15: I am at a table tasting Pinot Noir where a group of men describe tasting “hints of forest floor.” I leave to find the beer guys again. I taste at table fourteen. A restroom would be nice.

 7:15-8:15: I taste at tables fourteen to fifty five. None of them know where the restrooms are. I begin to doubt one exists. I’m feeling good.

 8:43: For the first time, I have pronounced all Bordeaux wines on one of the French tables correctly. I wonder if sampling so many wines has given me super powers. I taste all the wines at the French table.  

 8:45: I return to the Italian table and try to pronounce “Montepulciano.”  I can not. I do not have super powers. I taste all the wines at the Italian table and ask about a restroom.

 8:45-9:10: I taste at tables fifty five to sixty two. So much good wine to try. I glance at my tasting notes; they appear to have been written in a cross between Sanskrit and Portuguese.     

 9:15: The one functioning neuron in my frontal lobe tells me to eat something. Apparently this neuron was not working when I decided I would simply use the restroom later.

 9:16: The guy at the food table says the restrooms are toward the front. I create a heap of food on my plate that embarrasses the people I’m with.

 9:45: I stop at table seventy four. The light refracting through a Chardonnay bottle creates a vision of Bacchus the god of wine. It’s beautiful. I ask it if he’s seen the restroom.

 10:05: I’m not done but the lights are blinking. I hand my car keys to my friend and climb in the car without using the restroom.

 This week’s recommendation:

 Dante 2008, Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99): At a meager $10, this wine was a standout in a huge room full of wines. A map of the event’s floor plan shows its table was right next to the restrooms.

Blue Chip Wines for the Special Occasion

March 17, 2010

You’re ready to pull out your wallet and shatter the lid on what you typically spend for a bottle of wine. You’ve picked the special occasion worthy of breaking the bank and you love the idea of finally experiencing a world-class bottle. But for all the promise, for all the hype, and for all the anticipation, you just can’t pull the trigger on the purchase because you fear the Greasy Grosshauser Effect. The Greasy Grosshauser Effect happens when something falls way short of its huge expectations. (For one example of the GGE, Google “Herschel Walker trade”). The name stems from a kid in my elementary school: Greasy wore his dad’s clothes by the age of eleven and could remove lug nuts from cars with his bare hands. His older brothers and sisters each held a state record or two in various sports.

The problem with Greasy was that for all his athletic potential, he had the coordination of a giraffe in a potato sack race and the killer instinct of a sponge on Quaaludes. In addition, after half a lap around the track, Greasy was easily distracted by pretty butterflies. Coaches and teammates could only shake their heads.

Expensive wines can burn you with the GGE too. Nothing is more frustrating than dropping a huge bundle of cash on a bottle of wine only to have it leave you shaking your head like you just watched it miss a layup. Although some brands have a stellar reputation and history, none are immune to making a bad bottle on occasion. For that reason I have compiled a short list of high-end, special occasion wines that leave me feeling like a winner and are worthy of their high-end price.

Rombauer 2007, Chardonnay ($32.99): The creaminess in this wine creates a perfect pairing with Brie cheese. Just try to calculate the points you would earn by having them waiting for your husband/wife after work.         

Domaine Serene 2005, Evenstad Pinot Noir ($59.99): Sour cherries, wet earth and cigar box linger throughout a long finish. Wet earth? Yes, in this wine it’s delicious.        

Continuum 2005, Cabernet Sauvignon ($125.99): After the Robert Mondavi brand was bought out by a huge conglomerate, the family now runs the Continuum Winery. Balance is the key word here. Cherries, red fruit, cola, and oak are delivered on a silk plate. A big investment, yes, but still not as much as popcorn and candy for the kids at the theater.

Storing Wine 101 – Avoiding the Grapes of Wrath

February 26, 2010

Although many wines are made to drink right off the shelf, most benefit from a couple years of careful storage. When I first heard this I decided to try it for myself. I scurried down to the local store, picked up a cheap bottle of white, and set it on top of the refrigerator so that in two years or so, I could take it down and impress a hot date with the heavenly elixir it would certainly become.

The day finally arrived and I poured a glass for the lucky girl. Without knowing it, however, I committed every mistake possible for storing wine and after two years the bottle turned to rancid vinegar. After the first sip, my date’s mouth began to twitch and her jaw silently worked as if she were chewing gum. She tried to speak but no words came; I was reminded of a poorly dubbed 60’s era Kung Fu movie. There was no second date. The experience could have been different had I only known a few key points about wine storage.

First, forget whites. Some will age but trying to store many whites is like drafting the chess champion to play linebacker. Most don’t have the structure for the job. Instead, look for reds like Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and even Zinfandel.    

Second, store the bottle on its side and in the dark. This part is easy. Find the right spot then walk away and forget it.      

Third, keep your bottle away from vibrations. Refrigerators, generators, or even your roommate’s awesome stereo speakers are enough to affect the aging process of wine. These vibrations may be subtle, but to a bottle of wine, it’s like being attached to one of those machines that tests the suspension on cars.

Fourth, keep your wine in a cool place where the temperature is constant. Think of your wine as a high maintenance girlfriend. If the temperature gets too high or too low, she’ll get sour.

Below are a couple recommendations that will benefit from two to four years of proper storage.

Franciscan 2006, Cabernet Sauvignon ($23.99): Cabernets are one of the ultimate candidates for aging. Flavors of cherries, black currant, and cedar will be fuller and rounder in a few years.

Mandolin 2007, Syrah ($11.99): This wine is loaded with blueberry and black pepper. Aging will mellow the strong tannins and improve the overall balance.

Waiter! A Can of Your Best Wine!

February 17, 2010

People working in the wine industry often tell you that price has nothing to do with the quality of wine. I disagree. An $80 bottle is better than a $3 bottle every time. Having said that, I’ve found many $20 bottles show better than lots of $60 bottles, and many $12 bottles taste better than a lot of $30 bottles. The point is, if you do your homework, under-priced wines are easy to find. Knowing this, I decided to do my homework in the under $4 price range to see if I could find a true gem quietly hiding on the bottom store shelf next to the dusty cork stoppers.  

The requirements for this test were simple: each wine had to come in a regular 750 ml sized bottle, and cost under $4. I wanted to test the cheapest stuff available without going to Mexico. At this price, I could afford to try a lot of candidates so I was fully expecting to have a few good suggestions to pass on. After all the bottles, after all the hope, here is my suggestion: spend more.  

Anyone who tries these products and then claims he doesn’t like wine is like the guy who only rides “It’s a Small World” and claims he doesn’t like Disney World. It only takes another $4 to open the door to so many wonderful and truly top notch wines (I’ve recommended several of them in previous columns). Split the cost with a friend and move up to the next tier. After all the tasting, I arrived at only two wines under $4 that I can name here. One just makes the cut while the other is the big surprise of the entire experiment.

Crane Lake 2008, Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.99): I’ll give a slight nod to this bottle. If you’ve just lost a bet and need to save that $4, the structure in this wine is slightly bolder and more complex than the other similarly priced wines. But that’s really like saying it’s the valedictorian at summer school.

Charles Shaw (Three Buck Chuck) 2007, Sauvignon Blanc ($2.99):  This is the one bright star of all the wines sampled. Filled with citrus and summer, its acidity is nicely balanced. A crisp finish leaves just enough fruit and a hint of sweetness. Let me be clear, this is not just the best of a weaker lineup; this is a darn good wine.

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