Wine column no. 47: The art of finding a good wine

April 20, 2014: A good friend asked recently, is the art of finding a good wine just a guessing game?.
Is there a more reliable and methodical way to discover a wine that you will likely purchase again?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. Chance is part of the equation, but many of the decisions about whether to purchase a wine depend on the parameters you choose.

These can include cost, type of foods and their seasonings, style and even the occasion. The people I’ve found to be most trustworthy have decades of knowledge about wine styles, regions and food pairings. Not only can they give you solid recommendations on style and grape varietals, but, keeping their minds open to what you value, they are often able to put those suggestions in perspective.

I don’t yet have that level of experience, but I have noticed this: the winemaker can make a difference. It takes skill to shape wine into something of consistent value and some people do that better than others.

Enter Dave Phinney, a University of Arizona graduate who worked as a temporary harvest worker at Robert Mondavi Winery before moving to Opus One Winery and Whitehall Lane Winery. One year later, in 1998, he started Orin Swift Cellars with “two tons of purchased Zinfandel and, as my wife, Kim, likes to say, ‘one pair of shoes,’” according to a blog on Wine Spectator. The name is unique, and so is Phinney’s philosophy about wine. (Orin is Phinney’s father’s middle name, and Swift is his mother’s maiden name. The winery is located in St. Helena, Calif.)

“I worked on the night shift on an all-Mexican crew, with some great guys, but what they taught me (was): A lot of winemaking isn’t the romantic stuff of blending wines and being out in vineyards and doing wine tastings. So much of it is just being clean and just work; it’s just cellar work,” Phinney says.

It shows. Phinney’s most famous wine is his Prisoner, a Zinfandel-based blend of cabernet sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Charbano and Syrah first made in 2000 under the Orin Swift label that made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year at least three times in six years. Soft, supple, and filled with the flavor of red berries, the 2002 vintage (the blend often changes each year) was so impressive that I still remember it years later. This was before Phinney sold the Prisoner brand to Huneeus Vintners, owner of Quintessa in Napa Valley and Veramonte in Chile, in 2010.

These days, Phinney has a relatively new brand of wine under the label Locations, where he bottles wines from grapes grown in France, Italy, California, Spain and Argentina.

The premise is simple: Using the most capable vineyards, Phinney seeks to make the best wine possible, all while having fun in the process. In the case of the “F-2” (for France) wine, which you can purchase at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago for about $17, his style is big and he lets his grapes ripen (some might say over-ripen) much more than your typical French red blend of Grenache, Syrah, and other assorted Bordeaux varietals. Additionally, the words “14.5 percent alcohol” on the label make it clear he’s marketing to a more American audience.

Yet I don’t mind. What’s great about winemakers like Phinney is they are just as willing to discount their talents as they are to talk about a wine’s greater contextual value. When Austin Beeman asked Phinney in a YouTube video what he really wanted to say to the wine world, the laid back, somewhat exasperated Phinney responded, “Oh, geez, that it’s just wine. Like, in most countries, that it’s just a part of the meal as much as potatoes or steak or whatever. It should be enjoyed, and it shouldn’t be put up into this stratosphere of something it’s not or misconstrued or mythicized or whatever. Anybody can do it; it’s not magic.”

That gets to the heart of this, I think, because it’s true. This is something I’ve thought a lot about after spending an evening with my French cousin, Philippe, while visiting my 93-year-old grandmother in Brittany, France, recently. The wine really is secondary. You can get all the advice you want or need or seek; you can spend as much or as little as you think is necessary. But much more than regions and price, varietal and winemaker, it’s the people you share the bottle with who add the most value.

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