Wine column no. 12: Here's the way I really wrote it

I'm not a gambler in the traditional sense. Ten years ago, when I was in Las Vegas, I was more interested in the flower arrangements at the Bellagio Hotel than in placing a bet at a poker table. But place a wine I haven't had in front of me, and this is when things get interesting. Suddenly, I'm willing to consider the odds that a) I'm either throwing my money away, or b) I'm buying the potable equivalent of a pot of gold.

Wine may be many things, but it's certainly not predictable. And if you factor in your own ability to impact its success, a wine is more than just a bottle to serve with your meal: It is a personality. 
So standing in a wine shop, various thoughts cross our minds, the most important of which is: What is it about *this* particular bottle of wine that will convince us to plunk our money down at the cashier's desk and take a chance on what we'll find?

We'll be honest: There are lots of errant factors at work in this fleeting mental calculus. You can't exactly say that we're counting cards, but Greg and I have visited enough wine shops in Evansville to get a sense of what we think we may like. And hopefully we've whittled the why in that equation down to a predictable result -- for us, at least.
So what convinces us to buy one particular bottle of wine versus others in that same varietal class? The number one factors are price, certainly, and the occasion we will be drinking it at. Number two is often the meal we'll be pairing it with. And number three is the salesperson we work with in making our decision.

In talking with some wine merchants in town, what we've learned is that sales is sales, no matter the merchandise. So if you feel that the person who's trying to make a sale isn't listening to what you want, then that's important. You say you don't like red wines? Then kindly disregard the wine purveyor who's trying to sell you on a bottle of red you're certain you won't be able to stand. Here's another one: Beware the salesperson with a limited vocabulary. If you ask what a wine will taste like, then he or she should be able to tell you what their impressions were in language you understand. If they haven't had it, they should tell you that, too. Here's one more: Don't listen to the salesperson who guarantees "you'll like it." Unless your mother is selling you your wine, the chances are high that this salesperson doesn't even know your name. So be careful.

That said, sometimes Greg and I will still gamble on a bottle. We're not as knowledgeable as others who can tell you with precision which vintages seem to have hit the jackpot; we're still decades away from that sort of perspective. But, we try to make some intelligent (we hope) guesses. As in: We really enjoyed the 2006 Justin, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, California. We thought this 14.5 percent alcohol Winetree purchase that we paired with venison tasted like caramel and black currant. It was also earthy. So if we're looking for a Cabernet Sauvignon, we might be tempted to try another wine from that area. About $27.

The same logic works for the companies producing wine we've liked: Greg and I have had good luck, generally, with Cline. Their 2008 Pinot Gris (you can find it at the Washington Avenue Schnucks for about $8) is smooth, crisp and slightly sweet. Cline also produces a good 2008 Ancient Vines red Zinfandel and a 2008 Ancient Vines Contra Costa County Mourvedre. We'd probably try another Cline varietal just because we think their vintners usually do good work.

This logic has also worked on recommendations from others. Recently, we were advised to try the Santa Rita Malbec. Unfortunately, the Schnucks in Newburgh this past week didn't have the Malbec. It did, however, have one lone 2009 Santa Rita Carmenere Reserva. Priced at around $11, I knew this purchase wouldn't break the bank, so Greg and I sat down to enjoy it with some grilled andouille brats and green onion sausage from Pearson's Rivertown Butcher Shop.

And what were our thoughts? First of all, we'll acknowledge that we don't know much about Carmenere. So we can't tell you with confidence how this Santa Rita compares to others in the same varietal class. But to us, this Chilean wafted blackberries and was so gentle and soft that it reminded me of down. At the same time, the flavors and textures didn't overwhelm us; it had a tannic (drying) finish, so that you weren't left limp from overexposure. This 13.5 percent alcohol bottle also earned an 87 out of 100 from Wine Spectator.

And finally, here's another wine that we hadn't had before but that we were excited to try because we were familiar with another of the company's products. The 2007 Chateau Pesquie blend of 70 percent Grenache and 30 percent Syrah is a Rhone Valley red that's definitely got some tannins, cherry flavors, and a down-to-earth sense about it. But this Frenchman also has a more distinguished brother that adds intense berry flavors to the mix. The 2007 Quintessence (80 percent Syrah and 20 percent Grenache) tasted like blueberries to Greg and had a nose that, at first, wafted vapors of alcohol. For me, it tasted of cassis or blackberries, had a good balanced body and some tannins. We got this as a gift from Greg's cousin Rob Williamson, and we waited to pair it with a baked lemon-garlic chicken. It was fantastic! 15 percent alcohol. Robert Parker rated it a 93 out of 100.

So, to sum up, buying wine may be a gamble, but there are some tricks you can use to help you make intelligent guesses. The most important things are to know yourself and what you want, but to also understand that not every wine will be perfect all the time. And in the end, even if you walk away with a bottle that you don't, ultimately, enjoy, there's still knowledge to be gained from that experience — whether it's about the varietal itself, the region it hails from, the shop you bought it at, or the salesperson who convinced you to purchase it

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