The Greyhound Wine Critic (or “When Do You Know You Have Too Much Spare Time on Your Hands?”)

January 10, 2011

So much of the taste of wine comes from its smell. Therefore, I enlisted the help of my greyhound, Nora, to use her super-sensitive smelling abilities as a critic for a side by side competition among several wines. The judging was simple: the more she sniffed or licked the cork or cap, the better the wine must be. Here are the results.

Pinot Noir: Two sniffs, one lick. I knew she wanted a taste but although she’s twenty-eight in dog years, I won’t let her have a sip from my glass. She glared at me like I was Michael Vick until I brought out the next cork. Score: Two paws up.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Only two sniffs but she also aggressively attempted to chew the cork. I have only seen one wine judge lunge for the cork with his teeth before but it was after he’d confused his cold medicine with bull shark testosterone. I have to assume lunging for the cork with one’s teeth is a positive testament for the wine. Score: Two paws up.

Chianti: Three sniffs and enough licking to give the cork the feel of an oil soaked gerbil. I slid the soggy cork back into the bottle and made a mental note not to pour the remainder of the wine for guests. Score: Two paws up.

Lemon Fresh Pine Sol : Two sniffs. In an effort to avoid an appointment with the vet and a date with the ASPCA, I restrained her from licking the cap. Score: Two paws up. I’m beginning to have my doubts about Nora’s palate.

Boone’s Farm (Apple Blossom): One sniff. Nora immediately adopted the same depressed expression she wore when she learned David Archuleta lost American Idol. She then ignored the cap and spent the next fifteen minutes licking the same spot on the carpet. A rather damning statement about the wine considering Nora happily gobbles up dead beetles and frozen rabbit turds. However, my faith in Nora’s judgment is restored. Score: One paw down.

Test conclusion: I probably have too much spare time on my hands.

This week’s recommendation is an excellent Malbec.     

Trivento 2009, Malbec ($8.99): This wine reminds me of a retired greyhound racer. It’s powerful with beautiful structure and at the same time it displays a docile mellowness. In wine speak that means it’s super delicious. At under ten bucks you also feel like you’ve just won at the track.

Wine Critics and Romanian Moonshine-Be Skeptical of Both

October 7, 2010

When traveling through Romania in the early nineties, I had the opportunity to try Romanian moonshine. This drink was  . . . how can I put it? . . .yes, that’s it—bad. The locals brewed the mix in wash tubs in their basements with plums grown in their own yards. Without industry standards for consistency (or health and safety, for that matter) the drink was typically strong enough to warrant donning a hazmat suit when handling it. The distilling process was far from perfect as evidenced by the errant hair or lint or gnat floating pickled in the fluid. Wide mouthed mason jars and long-necked orange soda bottles were filled in back alleys when a fresh batch was ready for distribution. The array of bottle shapes and styles gave them all a kind of matching similarity, in a strange Twilight Zone sort of way.

One evening, a village official invited us to a little welcoming party. The party was the perfect showcase for the locals to show off their brew—kind of like a wine tasting, except maybe one organized by Satan. To my surprise, a number of local moonshine experts uniformly preferred a brew made by one of the townsfolk (Vlad the beet farmer). These critics were men whose opinion the rest of the village respected, men whose vast experience provided them with unique insight and expertise. These experts then goaded, pressured, and otherwise bullied me into trying a shot of their village’s pride.

I tipped the shot glass back and in a flash I wondered if I would ever be able to use my lips and tongue again in a meaningful way. I think I also briefly saw Jim Morrison of The Doors speaking with Genghis Kahn in the corner. The drink’s full potency hit me in the back of the head like my cousin’s numchuck hit me that day he tried to demonstrate his “chucknique” in grandpa’s basement. In that moment, my skepticism of drink critics was born.

With this week’s recommendation, I disagree with an expert as vehemently as a shot of Romanian moonshine disagrees with one’s gastrointestinal tract.

Trapiche Broquel 2008, Malbec ($15.99): This wine received a rather tepid score from a well-respected national critic. In a strongly worded letter, I told him of a small Romanian village in need of a good moonshine taster. I believe Trapiche is one of the best Malbecs on the shelf.

Tasting Wine Smackdown Style

March 10, 2010

When I took the Pepsi challenge I discovered one cola, Pepsi, tasted bigger and fresher than the others. By comparison, Coke seemed weak and thin. I needed to experience both of them right next to each other to really taste the difference. It was the same with Hostess Ho Hos and their leading competitor, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls. When comparing them at the same table, in the name of science, I discovered Ho Hos to be moist, rich, and aromatic. By comparison, the Swiss Rolls, tasted like waxy sawdust, only not as delicious. The point is, I drank Coke and ate Swiss Rolls for years without knowing they weren’t my first choice. It required a side-by-side, head-to-head smackdown to really learn how one compared to the other. It went on from there. I began testing other things next to each other and can now tell you exactly why I prefer Vietnamese cinnamon to Ceylon cinnamon, Columbian coffee over Ethiopian, and don’t even get me started on why I prefer the AMC Gremlin to the Dodge Aspen.

Tasting two wines next to each other in the same way is a great way to learn what you like in a wine and why. Pop the cork on two different bottles and pour a glass of each. Start with two different grape varietals. Notice the differences in their aromas. Do they feel different on your tongue? Do the flavors of one wine stay with you longer than the flavors of the other? Push the cork back in and try them again the following day. They’ll last for a day or two. Have they changed after breathing for a day? For a tighter competition, try two wines of the same grape varietal next to each other.

Performing tests like this accelerates your wine knowledge quickly. Below are two good side by side tests to give you an idea of where your tastes lie with both reds and whites.

Oyster Bay 2008, Sauvignon Blanc ($11.99) vs. J. Lohr 2008, Chardonnay ($12.99): One of these is fresh, crisp, and loaded with citrus, while the other is rich, creamy, and loaded with butter.

Mark West 2008, Pinot Noir (13.49) vs. Ave 2007, Malbec ($12.99): Again, these wines stand on opposite sides of the isle when it comes to flavor profiles and body weight. One is driven by fruit and has a lighter body while the other sports bigger flavors of oak, cedar, and tobacco.   

Weeknight Wines

January 14, 2010

As much as I would like to, I just can’t bust open a $40 bottle of wine every night. Unfortunately, buying some of the wines out of California today would require me to take out another student loan. Some of the wines from France would require a second mortgage. For that reason, I need a backup. I need something to drink when it’s not a special occasion. I need something to open for my neighbor who pours 7-Up in his wine because it “gives it more fizz”. Something that is good, yet affordable. I call wines for these occasions my “Weeknight Wines” and they are the equivalent of a good backup quarterback. They are good enough to rely on, yet don’t command the outrageous salaries of the franchise players.

After years of using Darwin’s natural selection, the weaker low cost wines in my rack are now extinct in favor of better performing price-conscious specimens. They display all the complexity, structure, balance, and taste that the more expensive wines possess but also cost less than $14.00. So for those of us who aren’t parking a boat somewhere in the South of France, here is a short list of some of my favorite Weeknight Wines.

Big House White 2008 ($8.99): This rated number one on Wine Enthusiast’s best buy wines of 2009 and is a blend of four lesser known varietals. On the nose there are peaches and mandarin oranges. It has flavors of citrus fruit, lemon grass, and a mineral element that keeps the light sweetness in check. If you’re missing summer right now, pick up a bottle.

Chateau St. Michelle 2008, Columbia Valley Riesling ($9.99): This wine shows a sweetness that continues throughout the finish. It displays flavors of apricots and pears with a drizzle of honey mixed in. If you like sweeter wines this one is done well.

Pascual Toso 2007, Malbec ($12.99): This Malbec is slightly fruitier than many and displays so many flavor profiles it’s hard to list them all. Coffee, cherries, violets, and blackberries are just a few. The tannins, typically big in Malbecs, are nicely integrated.

Montecillo 2005, Crianza ($12.99): With a light to medium body, this Spanish Crianza is European in style. Hints of smoke, hints of apples, and hints of copper are all tucked nicely into a very solid effort. Everything about this wine is subtle and tasteful.

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