Wine column no. 13: Wine has its actors, too

Some people are experts at sizing people up. One look, and they've already made up their minds: Like, this one's soft. Or, that one's a loose cannon.
The same could be said for some grape varieties. A good Cabernet Sauvignon? That's like being punched by Rocky Balboa. One false move, and he's got you down for the count. But this guy's so good that you don't even care; you're seeing beauty in the color of the bruise, and the pummeling can be exquisite.
But Pinot noir is another grape altogether. If Cabernet Sauvignon is a Type A, then a good Pinot noir is the most skillful Type B you've ever met. This means it's snake-like -- The Hollywood version of a chameleon, weaving a deceptive blend of sweet (fruity) charm, a dry (tannic) wit and a mean (acidic) streak into something that even the most adept of us might not fully acknowledge. Balanced just right, the resulting performance can be awe inspiring. If any grape would be up for an Oscar, then Pinot noir would be it, hands down.
You like me, you really like me.
Truth be told, it's hard to find a Pinot noir that isn't flush with confidence, but the 2007 A to Z is mellow enough not to flaunt its talents. This Sally Field of Pinot noir is from Oregon, and paired with salmon, it's quite good in a fruity, smooth way. If you're looking for an affordable red wine that imparts flavor and body, this would be it. Winetree. $10-$19.99 range.
Super models can't act
Speaking of thin, the 2008 Van Duzer Vinter's Cuvee from Willamette Valley, Ore., could use a little food. This one had a cassis nose, and it was definitely sleek and smooth in terms of texture, but by itself, there just wasn't much there. It was like minutely spicy purple-colored water, without much flavor -- except when it was paired with salmon doused in lemon, salt, pepper, fresh basil, garlic, parsley and olive oil. Then, and only then, did it seem to come alive, settling into the evening like a body that's just found that sweet spot on the couch. Maybe it was the lemon on the salmon; maybe it was the salmon itself. But whatever the reason, this is a food wine, definitely. Winestyles. 13 percent alcohol. About $20.
I'll be back
Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been The Terminator. But the 2009 Block Nine Caiden's Vineyard will end your search for a tasty, affordable California Pinot noir in a heartbeat. Smooth and sleek, with a eucalyptus nose and a fruity flavor, this Pinot noir sells for around $15. As we did with the above two Pinot noir, we paired this with salmon marinated in lemon juice and other spices, and the combination was quite good. Winetree. 13.1 percent alcohol.
Meryl Streep in a glass
If acting were just about memorizing your lines, then anyone could do it. The ones that have the smirk, but not the soft tones, fall flat. So do the ones that have the look, but not the substance. Enter Meryl Streep, the actress's actress. And a working man's match -- for those of us who haven't yet won the lottery  -- might be the 2006 Argyle Reserve Pinot noir. This Willamette Valley, Oregonian, is silky smooth, rich and bursting with cherry flavors. You won't think of B-movies, or of what you should have had instead. This Argyle's meant for celebrations, and honors. Maybe even an Oscar. Winetree. $40-$49.99 range. 14.5 percent alcohol.
When in doubt, go live
Stage performers may not have the glitzy Hollywood names. But they're the ones who'll stand 10 feet from you with sweat on their brow. They understand that the biggest risks generate the biggest rewards, and that being well known doesn't necessarily mean you do good work.
Wine's the same way. Take the 2009 Chehalem 3 Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which earned a 91 out of 100 from Wine Spectator. This $22 purchase from Schnucks on North Green River Road should have stunned the audience just on ratings alone. But something must have been lost in translation. It wasn't that it wasn't fruity; strawberries and cherries definitely got the spotlight here. But as with all good actors, charm can't always cut it. In the end, mean, acidic streaks will always do them in. 13.1 percent alcohol.


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


2008 Castello Monaci Liante Salice Salentino: It's got body, but hardly any flavor

aug. 5, 2011: my dad gave us this as a gift, with a caveat that we not drink it until july because it was a little acidic. we finally opened it tonight paired with pesto chicken and potatoes. our mistake might have been chilling it, since fresh out of the bottle, i could almost smell the acidity. now that it's warmed up a bit, the acidity has toned down but whatever flavors are there are mostly muted. at 13 percent alcohol, and with no idea where my father got this from, i'm not really sure what to think, since it is a blend of two grapes we've never had before: 80 percent negroamaro and 20 percent malvasia nera, both of which are from the salento peninsula of italy. greg agreed that it didn't have much flavor and it wasn't that impressive. nevertheless, wine spectator gave it an 85 out of 100, saying it had flavors of blackberry and plum. we're just not feeling it.

UPDATE: the longer we have this open, the more the flavors and scents reveal themselves. i'm not sure i smell the plums, but there are definitely berries, and i think this largely has to do with the fact that it is nearing room temperature. the tannins are slight, and the acidity is much lower than when it was first opened; i'm unsure of the ideal food pairing since it was chilled when i had it with the pesto chicken. but suffice it to say, i'd try this again -- if i made sure not to cool it down first. greg said it's getting a little better, but it's still "OK."


2009 Luiano Chianti Classico vs. 2008 Quattro Mani Montepulciano: Both are fruity

july 24, 2011: this wasn't exactly apples to apples. but greg had baked a pizza, and we were wanting to explore more italian wines. so we uncorked this cute bottle of 2009 luiano chianti classico ($13.99) as well as a 2008 quattro mani montepulciano ($12.99). the chianti was 13.5 percent alcohol, with some fruit, light tannins. greg liked it a lot, saying it was smooth and not really dry. i thought the same thing. the quattro mani we compared it to was also fruity, with more tannins and acidity. 13 percent alcohol. greg thought the tannins on the quattro mani were more pronounced at the end. both are from winetree.

2007 Rudolf Muller Eiswein: Fantastic!

july 31, 2011: this is apple tart delicious! we got this at sahara mart in bloomington, ind., ages ago, and it's been hanging out in our dark, cool basement ever since then. greg said it's like smelling and eating an apple tart, with a very smooth texture. an excellent dessert wine. i thought the flavors were a blend of apple and lemon. it had a yellowish-orange color and was very good. it's the first eiswein we've had in a while. 8.5 percent alcohol. $17.99.

Terra Alpina vs. San Angelo Banfi Pinot Grigio: Equally as unimpressive.

july 27, 2011: greg and i were in another italian mood, so he grilled up some chicken. this terra aldina pinot grigio from winetree wasn't that impressive, and neither was the banfi it was being compared to. i really couldn't tell much of a difference between these two wines. the terra alpina from the dolomites, in the eastern alps of italy, was 12 percent alcohol and had a light yellow color. i thought it had a bit of stoney nose, a clean smell, kind of like the scent of detergent. but greg was more effusive: he thought the nose was somewhat strawberry and kind of sweet. he didn't think it had much of flavor. "it's just kind of there," he said. "and that's why this makes it a good summer wine because it's cold, and it's kind of like water." i'm not sure that'd be a compliment that would sell me on either wine, but it worked for greg :)

as for the san angelo banfi, this $14.99 schnucks purchase was 13 percent alcohol, with a light yellow color. i thought this tuscan had a pear nose, with a slightly sweeter flavor than the terra alpina. greg said the nose was citrus, and it smelled of cantelope. it had a bit of bitterness at the end, and a sharp texture.

maybe we just haven't learned to appreciate pinot grigio yet?