Wine column no. 74: The blush you can't deny.

Oct. 18, 2015: This isn't rocket science. This isn't poetry. So what would happen if I were to confess that I'm — going to use 10 words instead of one? 
I'd write a wine column.
Oh sure, they'd say. You, with your long lines, your fill-in-the-blank — you've done that before. That's what they always say. So I'd hand them my column and say: here, sir, would you like some more?
Take, for example, the 2014 Whispering Angel Rosé I had the other night. It's in the midst of fall; this is the best time for a rosé. The chills add depth. They bring nuance, a cool distraction. Some rosés, I'll even venture to say, can really go beyond the pale.
Let's speak of pale. It's a darker shade than clear, the ghostly version of a flush. Let's get to the point straightaway.
There are four ways to make rosé.
The first uses the grapes' own mass to make them bleed. Saignée, the French call it. The grapes can only blame themselves.
The second involves limited maceration. The grape skins are left in contact with the juice until the winemaker decides it's best to pull away. This controls the color. The longer the connection, the deeper the blush.
The third method is also about control, but it's less pronounced and more diffused. The grapes are pressed until the juice has the right color. The pressure is passive, assumed. It's there no matter where you turn. In the best of circumstances, you can't stop this kind of blush, but you can shape the color.
The fourth involves a run off. The winemaker removes the juice from the tank of fermenting red wine. The run off process results in a darker and more intense wine, but no one calls this liquid rosé. I tried to click on a link to learn more about this, but the link was broken. What's left is, therefore, only proportionally rosé.
I would think it would be difficult to be a rosé. Not quite red, not quite white, there's always the implication that it could be a bit more further defined. I don't understand it or its casual substance and I always think it could be something more.
The Whispering Angel has probably a medium-grade hue. I've seen deeper rosés; lighter ones, as well. It's grown in Provence, France, and consists primarily of Grenache, Rolle (Vermentino) and Consult grapes. It has 13 percent alcohol.
This chilled rosé — they are always best when a bit icy — has a crisp acidity and more body than others sitting across from it on the shelves. It has lingering curves that it seems to show, again and again, sip after sip, without meaning to. It's softness, in a bottle, and for a moment, this might be as good as it gets.
Winetree Liquors on Weinbach Avenue will trade you $21.59 for it.


Wine column no. 73: The 2012 Luminary is a bran splinter new wine that sheds light on an old concept

Sept. 20, 2015: Anyone know a fifty-cent word for theft? Does it matter?

Here’s what’s on my mind lately. Suzanne Mustacich of Wine Spectator puts it well in the Sept. 30, 2015, issue:

“‘Get me a unit of Cheval, a good chunk of Cheval,’ said the voice on the recording, a taped phone conversation between the accused mastermind of an eight-month crime spree, in which more than $1.1 million worth of Bordeaux’s best wines were stolen, and an accomplice.”

Mustacich was writing about Carlos Da Silva Lopes de Sa’s decision to plot with accomplice Yoann Gautrau, the alleged ringleader, to steal from one of the most famous wine producers in France. Along with 13 others, the pair robbed 18 wineries and negociants before later selling the stolen wine at reduced prices. Sentences included $67,000 fines and up to four years in prison.

Those are the real world consequences when people are willing to stand up and say they saw or heard something happen that the law says shouldn’t have happened at all. But that stuff is boring. What’s more fun, what’s more exciting, is letting the thieves get away with it.

That’s where the fifty-cent word concept comes in. That’s how Robin Hood became not a thief and a liar, but a savior to those who had less. That’s how Jay Gatsby got known for throwing outlandish parties, and not for how he got the money to throw the parties in the first place. That’s how David Niven, with his sweater tied artfully around his neck, became not “The Pink Panther’s” jewel thief, but the charming, witty guy you’d like to say you know. It’s why we rooted for George Clooney in “Ocean’s Eleven,” and in “Ocean’s Twelve,” and again in “Ocean’s Thirteen.” It’s why a fitted suit, a nice haircut, and a good idea or, perhaps, just a license will get you in the door. After all, as long as you’re polite to the right people, no one really cares what you do once you get in there.

Anti-heroes, in other words, are cool. Following the rules is boring. Flouting the law, especially when you do it with style, is always the way to go. And most importantly: There are no consequences for believing all of this to be true. Just think what could happen if the people who are younger than us start thinking this way, too. Maybe they already do.

So let me break this long line of popular logic to bring you a wine that, I think, does it better — all within the rules, all with talent, and all with its own sense of style. Let me present ingenuity. Let me present my own version of class. And let me explain, finally, why this approach should be cool: Because it shouldn’t be shameful to agree to abide by laws that help us all.

The 2012 Luminary Red American Blend is a blend of 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge Vineyards, Napa, California; 19 percent Syrah from Double Canyon, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington; 8 percent Syrah from Chamisal Vineyards, Edna Valley, California; 16 percent Zinfandel from Home Ranch, part of Seghesio Family Vineyards, Alexander Valley, California; and 2 percent Merlot from Carneros, in the southern corner of Napa, Pine Ridge Vineyards.

The Luminary has a cassis nose, is smooth, well balanced and concentrated. It’s sold at Winetree Liquors on Weinbach Avenue for $42.99. It contains 14.7 percent alcohol.

Michael Beaulac of Pine Ridge Vineyards, Jason Ledbetter of Double Canyon, Fintan du Fresne of Chamisal Vineyards, and Ted Seghesio of Seghesio Family Vineyards are all experienced winemakers who wanted to do something different. 

They knew wine’s Old World traditions meant that wines that feature multiple varietals should use fruit that comes from one particular region or state. But Crimson Wine Group, which owns Luminary, is based in Napa. It’s not an Old World company. Innovation is more easily embraced there. You don’t usually get judged for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in America.

Unhindered by the constraints of expectation, of someone else’s limitations, these four vintners managed to create something that is both new and good. They crossed state lines and blended fruit from four very different appellations to create the first American wine of its kind. Even more lovely: They did it within the bounds of the law. In these lands, these men had opportunities, and they used them in the right ways.

Here’s another thing I like about this company’s mission, which captures well the goals of what a luminary does: It promotes the long-term growth of those it serves, its customers, its people, its communities, the environment, and its shareholders. Some might say that’s innovative, too. It’s certainly helpful, at least.

As for that fifty-cent word concept, there is a better approach. You don’t have to pay any money or flout any laws to benefit from it, either. Many people already have it within their reach. It’s called common sense. And that, I think, remains priceless.


Wine column no. 72: History, schmistory. We don't need grapes, and here's why.

Aug. 16, 2015: 

Last September, I asked myself to define what made wine, well, wine. The answer was complicated. But put simply, according to the U.S. Government Printing Office, wine is defined by the process used to make it. Additionally, I found that all wines are equal, but some wines are more equal than others — if you judge them on the potent forces of alcohol content alone. But power dynamics aside, what was missing in that column was a discussion about the common denominator in every single wine. And that, my wine-drinking readers, is grapes.

But wait just a minute. What about dandelion wine? And haven’t I seen rhubarb wine somewhere? In fact, there are a number of different types of non-grape-based wines out there: Apricots, currents, elderberries, peaches, pears, blackberries, blueberries, and more. Yet they don’t get even half the press that grape wines get. So this got me thinking: What makes grape-based wines so special, anyway?

I’m half-French, so I think I can make the following points half-mockingly while also making them half-believable. We all love half-truths, lies and innuendo, especially when the damage they do doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us, at least at first. But most importantly, there’s simply no other responsible way to make reckless and false allegations these days. So here we go:

First, grape-based wines get whole aisles at the grocery store. These bottles actually think they deserve to rub elbows with products in the produce, butcher and pastry departments. Do these grape-based wines really think they’re equal to them? It’s like they expect to get special treatment.

Second, grape-based wine has a certain je ne sais quoi. People think it’s all hoity-toity, and that reputation makes it a liability. Would you want to be caught with a glass of grape-based wine in your hand these days? It’s just so — let me find the right word — distasteful. If anyone told anyone else that they thought I was drinking grape-based wine, I’d just flat out call them a liar. Maybe I’d say a few other untrue things about them, too, just for good measure. How despicable, that I would want to experience a glass of a liquid that can be described as elegant, serious and substantial, or worse, that would make me feel good. I’m not even interested in finding out what those concepts are like in the first place, much less what they mean. Who is, these days? I mean, I’m not going to trump this up, but this is America. 

Third, cultivating grapes takes up our world’s precious land space. Imagine if this whole state were run over by people who wanted to plant or grow grapes. You know, those people, the ones that would want to make elegant, serious and substantial wines that might help us develop elegant, serious and substantial products and ideas. And don’t even get me started on the types of jobs these grapes, and by extension their wines, might create. I mean, I’m all for jobs. Who isn’t? But think about who’d create those jobs. It would be grapes. Shiver. Just whispering it to all my friends at dinner parties and across town makes me cringe.

Additionally, did you know that wine grapes require certain standards of care in order to survive? Now, this really goes beyond the pale. Grapes aren’t people, people. They don’t deserve to have good, ethical folks like you and me caring for their health and welfare. No, not at all. Grapes are things that Lucy Ricardo stomped hilariously in wine vats on “I Love Lucy.” John Steinbeck, some famous American fiction writer whose works I would never actually take the time to read, wrote a book that mentions them in the title. I don’t know if that means anything, since I didn’t read it and it's just not cool or responsible to do any research before making outlandish statements, but it seems like it’s probably relevant because it has grapes in the title. So I thought I’d mention it.

No. The best solution to this grape problem is the phylloxera plague. These tiny, almost microscopic insects wiped out most of Europe’s wine grapes in the late 19th century. I don’t know why the phylloxera did it, but the point is, they did it once, and if we’re lucky, they could do it again. I, for one, would be happy if we got rid of all those grapes. Not having grapes wouldn’t affect me at all. In fact, I think we’d all be better off because of it.

Now hand me a box of raisins. I may hate grapes, but I won’t let anyone take my raisins. Theft and discrimination are against the law, you know.


Wine column no. 71: When fame doesn't make it right, or good: Oregon pinot noir's beguiling disguise

July 19, 2015: Let me tell you a story of a perfect land, a perfect city, where the wine is magnificent, and the food, well: there’s nothing better.

This is Evansville. This is southern Indiana. This is honesty.

Let me say that you only get to understand Evansville once you leave it. Drive to a bigger city, try to navigate its traffic, sit amongst its neighborhoods, its breezy winds, and then tell me that you don’t understand Evansville. Tell me that you don’t understand what it takes to leave something you love. Tell me that you don’t know what matters most of all. Tell me that I don’t know what I’ve lost.

And then send a wine my way. Really, any wine — any Pinot noir, any chardonnay, any Cabernet sauvignon, any wine that makes a difference, because this is a wine column. This is a column about a social drink, a tonic, an elixir that makes us all feel better about what we do. You have a glass of red wine when you come home from work. You have a glass of white wine when you order a meal at Bonefish Grill. And Champagne, Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite drink? Well, that’s for the truest of hearts. At least, I’d like to think so.

This is wine, on the down low. It’s basic, after all, because this is Indiana. This is Evansville. This is us, honest to goodness, all down to earth, and easy to relate to, or so the old slogan goes. We are Mike Pence, just farther south, on the very edge of what we don’t say, of what we don’t acknowledge.

Because I like a challenge, I’m going to suggest you choose a Pinot noir. They’re prickly that way, those Pinots, because they only seem to succeed in certain places, in certain milieus. Thin-skinned and difficult, their grapes are famously finicky, troublesome and yet full of potential. Very few people manage to handle them well. Yet when they do, you notice. You notice quite well.

Wine critic Andrew Jefford was in the midst of commenting on Syrah when, it could be said, Pinot Noir grabbed the camera. He put it plainly: She’s a diva.

“In other words, just getting her on stage costs a huge amount of money and effort, and even then there’s no certainty that she will open her mouth and sing. If she does, she may be sublime, and no one in the theater will ever forget that combination of beauty, power and lyricism. But her moods are notorious, she’s prone to flu and sore throats, she doesn’t like most of the cities where she’s asked to perform and her agent is always holding out for a better deal.”

In other words, not everyone would choose to take on Pinot Noir. This is a grape, mind you, with bunch rot and downy mildew tendencies. It’s also sensitive to yeast strains, wind, frost, soil types and pruning techniques. It’s your basic grape varietal nightmare. Enter David Lett. It was Oregon in the late 1960s, and he had noticed that Willamette Valley, where he later made his famous 1975 South Block Pinot Noir from Eyrie Vineyards, has a similar climate as Burgundy, France. That’s the home of the most famous Pinot Noir, by the way. When Lett took his South Block to Paris for an international competition against French red Burgundies and won third place, Oregon ended up on the wine map. Well, France’s wine map, anyway. And on that point, I think we can all agree: Maps matter, but only to those who choose to follow them.

After that, Oregon was the Newest World in what was already known as wine’s New World. Robert Drouhin, a French wine magnate, established his Domaine Drouhin Oregon winery in 1987. Others followed suit, digging for metaphorical gold in the wine world’s newest, most popular metaphorical gold mines. And why not? That’s what people do when opportunity strikes. That’s what you do when everyone else is doing it, too. Everyone wants a piece of the glory.

These days, Oregon Pinot noir has a reputation for excellence — some of it deserved, others not so much. Yet that’s the downside to fame; it brings attention to what shouldn’t be discussed, or even tolerated, and forces us to make room for both. Those seeking a claim to fame insist: This is part of the game, too. The more talented sigh: Every good wine must have a bad wine to be compared to. So here you have it: Good wine versus mediocre wine, Oregon against Oregon, and all here in Evansville. I can’t imagine anything better. The safest battles, after all, just use words, even if none of those words are safe at all.

If you’re looking for a good wine under the $20 bar, the best I’ve found recently was a 2013 Erath Pinot Noir from Dundee, Oregon. This wine evoked flavors of cola and cherries, was fuller bodied, and had balanced tannins and acidity. $16.99. Binny’s Beverage Depot.

The it’ll-likely-be-better-next-year choice was the 2013 A to Z Pinot Noir, which was strong on vegetable notes but weak on cola flavors. I’m usually a big fan of A to Z, which has crept up in price over the years, largely because it’s usually a decent under-$20 bottle. But, not this vintage. My advice? Widen your perspective and look to other shelves. Money doesn’t make the diva. $18.59. Schnucks on Washington Avenue.


Wine column no. 70: Who needs the truth when you've got smoke and mirrors?

June 28, 2015: If you want to know the truth — and let’s face it: deep down, everyone is interested in at least some version of the truth — there’s much about wine that’s very much a mystery.

So when I come across vintners that are all about pH levels and average harvest brix, bottle dates and case production numbers, elevation heights and slope directions, I get a bit excited.

Here, I say to myself, are winemakers who care about more than just sales figures and wine label verbiage. These are people who are truly interested in helping me and everyone else learn about wine. These men and women are offering to us — wine drinkers — information that other wine makers deliberately choose to keep to themselves. And I like that. I like that a lot — especially since there’s no law that says they can’t, or shouldn’t, provide that information.

Some might argue that vintners who go beyond what’s required are spoiling the mystery, that they are taking what should be left alone and not discussed and turning it into ordinary table talk. Discussing pH levels and case production numbers is equivalent to revealing the wizard behind the "Wizard of Oz," they argue. Not everyone wants to know who works the puppet strings. "Let us have our magic," they say.

Well, I pretty much gave up on magic a long time ago. I like science. I like facts. I like people who rely on both science and facts. And I like trying to understand difficult subjects like wine through a reasonable, rational lens.

After all, the wizard in the "Wizard of Oz" wasn’t really who he claimed to be. And that movie was more about the characters that followed the yellow brick road to meet him, anyway. It’s the same with wine. Every bottle is the start of a mystery. Not every wine is everything its label says it is. It’s up to you to decide if you want to vet it, if you want to take it to task.

But here’s the trick — you won’t always solve the mystery. And this is what I love about wine: As much as science helps draw lines, as much as the facts extend the borders, there’s still a tiny bit of magic that keeps it all beyond reach. Call it wind, call it sun, call it rain, call it terroir, call it whatever else is beyond measure, but wine without magic is impossible. That’s what makes it most alluring. You are dealing, in the end, with something you cannot fully control.

Geometry and I never got along. But, sometimes, I think in terms of images. And if I were to draw the 2012 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California, it would be as a line on a graph reaching high into the sky. 

For around $16.59 from the Newburgh Schnucks, you get a bit of a chalky texture, an earthy nose, and a berry finish. My father said this wine wasn’t as good as the 2010 or the 2011. I haven’t had either one of those vintages, so I wouldn’t be able to tell either way. But I will say this wine had an upward trajectory. A positive ending matters. Even more to the point: Sometimes, it’s all you can hope for.

That said, Louis M. Martini isn’t a company that reveals too much. In fact, after two phone calls and one email to the vineyard, no one responded to my efforts to gain more information about the 2012 vintage. The most I was able to learn about this wine is that the previous vintage's grapes were sourced from the company’s own vineyards in Sonoma County, “with the balance coming from our longstanding partner growers. Specifically, we looked to our Frei Ranch Vineyard and Stefani Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley AVA, as well as our Barrelli Creek Vineyard in the Alexander Valley AVA for fruit,” according to the company’s website.

Additionally, 2011 was slightly warmer than the previous few years, the Louis M. Martini website said. This resulted in ripe, dark fruit flavors in its Cabernet. A bit of Petite Sirah added further dark fruit character and structure to the wine, “while a hint of Merlot contributes to a plush mouthfeel.”

That’s a lot to say about a wine I haven’t even had. But when you’re relying on only one source, what other options do you have? Sometimes it’s easy to be led astray.

Are those details as good as specific information about pH levels and elevation? My gut says no, but what can you do? Some vintners prefer to hold their cards closer to their chests. Discretion, after all — and within certain constraints — is perfectly legal. With some wine makers, it might even be preferred. Just remember that not all winemakers, or their wines, are equal. What’s discretion for one vintner could, for another vintner, be a full reveal.

What’s essential to discern more, to learn the truth? That answer, at least, is easy: You’ll have to do your own research. Every vineyard has its own wizard. Some wizards just happen to be more forthright than others, that's all.


Wine column no. 69: When vigilance matters

May 3, 2015: Cured meats. Rubber. Diesel. Wet asphalt. Tar.

These are not the most alluring terms to use to describe certain wines. Yet wine isn’t always an elegant business. It’s not always Michelin three-star. It can be barnyard, as some wine reviewers say via http://shop.winefolly.com/products/wine-descriptors-guide. It can reek of cat pee. It can be austere, flabby or just plain sour; coarse, harsh or bitter; vegetal, stalky or even spineless.

No, really. I’m actually talking about wine here.

These are the terms that wine reviewers use to communicate with people who like wine. Some terms are massive failures (what does “fallen over” mean, really, in the large scheme of things?) Others are pretty specific (grapefruit, cherry, strawberry.) Yet in all cases, the words we use and the definitions we use for them are largely approximations. Cherry at the start can become strawberry toward the end. Cured meats, once introduced to blue cheese, can disappear on contact — absorbed, I assume, by the cheese’s oily, unctuous character. Lemon can sweeten many acidic Sauvignon blanc. And sugar? Oh sugar, how I love thee. But sugary, sweet meals will ruin many a dinner wine if the wine isn’t a bit sweet, too.

So let’s talk about chemistry. Let’s talk about interactions. Let’s talk about relationships.

The first rule of wine and food is that there is always a flavor and texture relationship. The salmon on your plate can’t not impact the Pinot Noir in your glass, and the Pinot Noir in your glass can’t not impact the salmon on your plate. The two are connected, as are any entrée and wine. It’s natural. It just happens. It wouldn’t matter if there were a law that insisted otherwise. The interaction exists, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. 

The second rule is that sometimes, one (either the wine or the entrée) will dominate the other. Usually what happens here is a result of seasonings in the entrée or dominating acidity or tannins in the wine. Brown sugar will just shut a dry wine down, for instance; all subtlety, all grace, gets tossed to the side. And excess acidity will kill a meal, unless there’s an appropriate foil. Anyone who’s had a wine that elicits a grimace or an immediate overflow of saliva will know what I mean. That’s why you tend to pair acidic dishes with acidic wines. Chianti usually blends well with acidic tomato sauces, for instance. The acidity in each cancels the other out, making each much more tolerable.

The third rule is that sometimes wines and entrees have absolutely no impact on each other. Call it a lack of attraction, call it a reluctance to acknowledge the other, but some wines and some entrees can’t help but be mutually neutral. I’m not saying that this negates Rule No. 1. But sometimes the food and the wine are able to co-exist fully on their own. They remain constant regardless of their interaction with the other. They are solidly solid, steadfastly steadfast, calmly calm. Neither fazes the other. They are each their own. 

The fourth rule is that, sometimes, if you are lucky, you pair a wine and an entrée and, together, they create something even more wonderful. This is rare. Sometimes it happens on purpose; other times it happens accidentally. I have learned, over the years, that you can orchestrate what you can, and you can study what you can, but in the end, it’s all up to chance. Some wines find accidentally illustrious companions; other wines find entrees you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. You really will never know, until you try them out yourself. That is why wine is a continual learning experience. Put simply, the story never ends. There is always something new to discover.

I came across Rule No. 3 when I paired the 2012 Tres Picos Borsao Garnacha with a poblano pepper filled with chorizo, a type of minimally spicy pork sausage from Spain. I bought the pepper specifically because it had the chorizo. And I specifically served this Spanish wine from Borja with this entrée because I thought each would complement the other. Enter Rule No. 3. On its own, this wine was smooth, mild and tasted of strawberries and cherries. With the chorizo and pepper? It was still smooth, mild and tasted of strawberries and cherries. And the wine didn’t change the flavors of the pepper and chorizo, either. 15 percent alcohol. $17.99. The Fresh Market.

The best way to pair wine and food? Just go ahead and pair them. Don’t rely on someone else’s version of whether the pairing will complement the dish and the wine; do the work yourself. Inspect the wine and read up on the vineyard. Locate the grape-growing region on a map. Take pictures to better take it to task. Analyze the ingredients and the textures in the dish you serve it with. And then take notes, lots of specific, date-and-time heavy notes. Once you have enough experiential evidence, you’ll likely find a wine and food pairing you’ll be proud to stand behind. Or, you’ll find a pairing you’ll never want to experience again. Either way, it’s your move. Make the most of it. 


Wine column no. 68: Wine quest yields wins, losses

March 22, 2015: One of my favorite things to do is to wander the aisles of wine shops. Like writers in bookstores or car enthusiasts in dealerships, I can spend hours examining new, changed, or unusual offerings. One grape varietal I always look for is Cabernet Franc.

Most people haven’t heard of this grape. It’s not the biggest or most famous wine out there, it doesn’t tend to turn heads, and if it’s known as anything at all, it’s usually as a support mechanism for bolder, more bountiful wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet it has backbone, books say. It adds finesse. It also happens to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Its other parent is Sauvignon blanc, according to Carole P. Meredith, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis and an international authority on genetic manipulation and analysis of grapevines.)

On its own, though, Cabernet Franc can be tricky. Washington State can make a solid, smooth, medium-bodied Cabernet Franc. California’s Lake County has produced impressive, mildly fruity Cabernet Franc, too. But in the Loire Valley, France, some 100 percent Cabernet Franc can turn out light, tannic, inelegant, and reeking of green bell peppers. And those from South Africa? Maybe it’s bad luck on my part, but the ones I’ve had have come across as musty. These wines are smooth, but I just can’t get over what I can only describe as cellar qualities.

These inconsistencies are probably why I keep coming back to this grape. If Californian Cabernet Sauvignon is reliably reliable, then come-from-anywhere-Cabernet Franc is reliably unreliable. It’s like the wild card in a poker game; it keeps things interesting. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about the art of studying wine, it’s that you’ve got to lose a hand or two. If you’re always winning at wine, then you haven’t stretched yourself at all. 

One wine region that’s full of worthwhile surprises is the Loire Valley. It contains slightly more than 185,000 acres of vines and is about two-thirds the size of the more-famous Bordeaux region, according to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. It also happens to be a major grape-growing region for Cabernet Franc, even if Loire-style Cabernet Franc isn’t, typically, my favorite. But that’s OK. If you’re having fish or roasted chicken, a chilled red Chinon or red Saumur (appellations that produce Cabernet Franc) is probably a good bet. These wines are typically light, mildly fruity and, at around 12 or 13 percent alcohol, easy to drink.

There’s also a lot to be said for mild wines that don’t overwhelm the table. Pascal Jolivet’s 2013 Sancerre offers lemon when it warms up but is otherwise flat and even and would go well with fresh oysters or scallops. Sancerre, a style of Sauvignon Blanc, is a fixture in the Loire Valley, which prides itself on dry, refreshing white wines. Sancerre is also very food friendly. If you can’t find fresh oysters or scallops, then pair this wine with a goat cheese salad, or with chicken. I actually had it with lightly seasoned, pan-fried pork. Innocuous and straightforward, this wine isn’t likely to offend your tastes, and at 12.5 percent alcohol, it’s easy to handle, too. Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park, Chicago. $27.99.

But if you find yourself leaning toward bigger, fully flavored wines with a slight zing, try the 2012 Thorn, produced by The Prisoner Wine Co. Winemaker Jen Beloz created this blend of Merlot, Syrah and Malbec from Hudson, Stagecoach, Antica and Trefethen vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Beloz worked with vintner Dave Phinney to keep his “house style” for The Prisoner, probably one of his most famous wines, after he sold the brand to The Prisoner Wine Co. in 2009. The Thorn fits in well within the typically bold family of Phinney wines. At Varsity Liquors, where it’s sold for $43.99, all the Phinney and Phinney-influenced wines are conveniently grouped together in one setting.

At 15.2 percent alcohol, the Thorn is surprisingly mellow, and it went very well with Vietnamese spring rolls as part of a Friday night take-out dinner from Vecchio’s Italian Market, which has a new location at 300 W. Jennings St. in Newburgh, Indiana. Normally, I would have served a slightly sweet Riesling or spicy Gewurztraminer with the spring rolls. But the Thorn was well paired, even against the tasty dipping sauce that contained high amounts of vinegar. 


Wine column no. 67: Some labels tweak the meaning of beauty

March 8, 2015: Many remember when two men killed 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, on Jan. 7. The shootings were allegedly prompted by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The violence contributed to a continuing global conversation about the impact of political and religious satire, the likes of which also has a long history here in the United States.

What do Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression have to do with wine? Plenty, and in different ways. According to Robert Camuto’s story in the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, three of the 12 people killed in those attacks were among France’s most outrageous wine-label designers: Stéphane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac.

“They were my friends,” Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe said. For more than 40 years, he commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that ranged from drunken caricatures to sexually explicit humor. “Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the bull---- in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bull----.”

Descrambe sold his St.-Emilion vineyards in 2008. Yet he and his son, Olivier, still produce about 3,300 cases per year of Bordeaux appellation wine under his Château Renaissance label, which also features cartoons. His wines are exported within Europe and to Japan, but not to the United States. “Too complicated,” Descrambe sighed to Camuto. If he did export his wines to the U.S., he would likely have to change the labels. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has repeatedly rejected sexually suggestive wine labels, Wine Spectator said.

But this same government bureau allows winemakers to push the envelope in other ways. From wines with labels that probably aren’t really referencing the word for a female dog, to wines that market themselves as sexual chocolate, it appears that many words pass muster even if the images hitting those points home may not. Yet if it seems like wine labels are becoming more open to provocation, keep in mind that art and wine can blend gently, too.

The 2013 Decoy sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County, California, is a graceful wine with citrus notes that doesn’t overplay its hand. Its label — of a pintail duck — is peaceful, too. Zimbabwean artist Michael Allard painted it from a carving of an actual decoy. ($21.99. Varsity Liquors.)

Meanwhile, almost every year since 1945, Château Mouton Rothschild has used its labels to display and promote the artwork of famous painters like Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, according to www.mcnees.org. The images aim to visually please rather than to incite, yet they are also clearly more than just paintings on a backdrop.

Are all vineyards focused on beauty? Some might be — if you tweak the meaning of beauty. Take Orin Swift’s 2013 Abstract, a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, California. At 15.7 percent alcohol, this wine is heavy on alcohol fumes yet still manages to be light and almost fluffy. Its flavors evoke black pepper, coffee and blackberry. But given its label, the wine itself seems beside the point.

The label is a mishmash of images — some altered, others not — jumbled together in a collage that includes Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth II, naked women, someone’s family photographs, a smoking cowboy and, for good measure, one tiny shot of Marilyn Monroe. There are so many photos on the label that your eye is called to the only words that might attempt to make sense of them all: Vandalism is beautiful.

Now that’s a provocative statement that I doubt many local residents would agree with — even if it’s just on a $31.99 wine bottle from Varsity Liquors. Yet the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved it. So what makes words more tolerable than images? Why is using the word “sexual” on a wine label any different from presenting a visual image that effectively says the same thing?

Vandalism, after all, isn’t just visual. It’s not just something scribbled on street signs or under the Lloyd Expressway. It doesn’t disappear just because you turn off the lights. Want to throw trash on a concept or idea? Then just muck it up with falsities. Want to disrupt a process? Then subvert it with distraction. If you’re going to tweak the meaning of beauty, then you have to tweak the meaning of vandalism, too.

I don’t think Charlie Hebdo’s staff members deserved to lose their lives because some claimed they published degrading art that demeaned a specific religion. Yet there are limits to what some people will accept. Those who push boundaries accept these risks. It takes guts to say what you think. It also takes guts to accept criticism for doing so. Strong cities like Paris know this.

Comedian Fran Lebowitz once riffed on a well-known adage when she said, “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

She was joking, of course. The original statement, itself a collage of different concepts, uses the word “people” in place of wine. But it sure is interesting how trading one little word for another can distort the meaning of an entire sentence. You don’t need an image to do that. Sometimes, words are enough.

Victoria Grabner has blogged about wine for several years.
Copyright 2015 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Wine column no. 66: When individuality strengthens the field

Feb. 22, 2015: I either haven’t been paying attention, or I’ve been so singularly focused on Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that I’ve neglected to notice there’s another white grape that that beautiful, alluring country produces just as well. It’s called Chardonnay.

I know, I know. I’m not breaking any news here. You’ve all heard of Chardonnay. But finally registering that New Zealand makes good Chardonnay is like finally comprehending that real talent is an inclusive commodity; that, when done well, when done truly, it really does aim for the sum to be greater than the whole of its parts.

That said, first you have to get past the elephant in the room. First, you have to pay respects to the prima donna. First, you have to acknowledge Sauvignon Blanc.

Here’s the deal: There are plenty of wines that emphasize flavors before aroma. But New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not in this category. If perfume could be a wine, it would be Sauvignon Blanc. Swirl any glass of Kim Crawford or Spy Valley — vintage irrelevant — and you’ll see what I mean: there’s passion (fruit), whole bouquets of flowers, and scents that wrap around your nose like dresses do voluptuous curves.

In other words, it’s almost impossible to ignore Sauvignon Blanc. To not notice a Kim Crawford or Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc, you’d have to have no taste buds, or you’d have to be in the midst of an incredibly arresting cold. To me, there’s simply no other excuse for not understanding the power that’s just been poured into your glass.

Admittedly, there are people out there who can do this. They may acknowledge Sauvignon Blanc’s aroma, but it doesn’t knock them over. It doesn’t make them pause. To them, this may be a wine, and it may be a good wine, but it isn’t anything to write home about. The nose, these people say? “Oh, yeah, it’s there. Now what’s for dinner?”

I don’t understand these people. But then again, that’s what makes wine interesting: It encourages debate, discussion, and a variety of views. If you can withstand the allure of a Kim Crawford or Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc and still tell me that you appreciate wine, that you know wine, I admire you. I am, in fact, envious — because I can’t do that at all.

So this is my excuse for not noticing New Zealand Chardonnay: I’ve been blinded by the light, you could say, and that has prevented me from seeing the artful shadows. And this is too bad, because there are some New Zealand Chardonnays that are really worth a try.

The 2014 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from East Coast, New Zealand, is a good example of a wine that may not need the spotlight but that certainly does well once placed in it. I paired this with baked pecan-crusted chicken breast from The Fresh Market and steamed turnip greens that added a bit of bitterness to the mix. At 13 percent alcohol, it offered a muted lemon nose. But once in the mouth, there was a smooth buttery texture and a mellow crispness. The Fresh Market. $14.99.

Another worthwhile, if less effusive, New Zealand Chardonnay is the 2013 Oyster Bay. This one gives you a slight lemon nose and the flavor of apples. Silky, especially when it warms up in the glass, this Chardonnay provides hints of butter without being overwhelming. Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago. $9.99.

Comparing New Zealand Chardonnay to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc feels like comparing two very different dresses within the same Parisian fashion house. The Sauvignon Blanc may be ornate and tailored, more highly stylized to senses other wines can’t attend to. But the Chardonnay is solidly classic and more smoothly subdued. While the Sauvignon Blanc's effusive zest enhances its marketability, the Chardonnay is strengthened by its ability to stand strong for what it is. It’s not blinded by its own blind spot. It knows the competition but doesn’t fear it. Instead, it appreciates its differences and works hard to enhance them — because, after all, it’s that uniqueness that makes it alluring in the first place.

So which is better? That’s up to you to decide. But I will say that, to me, quality always wins out. Whether it’s an aromatic Sauvignon Blanc whose passion fruit and grapefruit scents stun the table, or it’s a silky, sexy Chardonnay that steadily, and intelligently, enhances a meal, both win this war — because if you’re looking for talent in a wine store, well, either way wins. Who wants mediocrity, in the end? Who wants a wine that makes no substantial dent at all? And who wants a wine that’s like every other wine out there?

Not me.