Wine column no. 54: Consider these rules when buying wines

July 27, 2014: It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. The aisles are clear. No one is stopping you from walking out of the store. Yet there it is, the wine that has somehow, inexplicably, drawn you near. Around you are boxes of beer, stacks of vodka, the shadows of flickering fluorescent lights. And right in front of you is the 2009 Cameron Hughes Lot 300 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Calif., the bottle that, in 2011, SF Weekly said sold for north of $100. It’s right in front of you for only $34.99, you tell yourself, tamping your voice down. There is silence. There is disbelief. Pull it from the shelf, you think excitedly, your mood suddenly pensive, inquisitive. No, it’s not a big deal to spend that much since you will be having it with steak, you tell yourself. Yes, it is the right vintage, you think, seeing the long line of 2009s behind the one now in your hands. Besides, it’s been a while since you’ve thought about Cameron Hughes. It’s been a while since you’ve approached the idea of salesmanship. It’s been a while since you’ve thought about all those things that used to mean so much to you.

Sounds like the start of a pretty decent story, right? After all, it’s got some necessary elements that could make it believable. There’s the liquor store scene that doubles as a setting. There are at least three characters: You, winemaker Cameron Hughes, and the wine itself. There’s mystery, as in how a $100-plus wine is now miraculously listed for only $35. (It turns out that’s how Cameron Hughes makes his money; he repackages and resells other people’s wines.) There’s a universal concept — marketing and sales — that most people can relate to. Finally, there’s drama, an allusion to something personal. And we all know how interesting things can get when they turn personal.

But here’s the truth: Only parts of that story aren’t embellished. These details reveal the smoke and mirrors: 1) You bought that Cameron Hughes because you wondered why it was priced so much higher than the other two Cameron Hughes wines in the store, and you wanted to know why there was a price hike and if it was deserved. 2) The lights weren’t even close to flickering at Frontier Liquors on Covert Avenue. You just added that for effect. 3) You had no idea that this blend of Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap grapes had once sold for more than $100. You didn’t read the SF Weekly review — weren’t even cognizant of it, in fact — until you got home, opened the bottle, and did some research online. Seriously, who other than Cameron Hughes himself would know what that wine originally retailed for in 2009? 4) Your opinion of the wine changed after you read that review. Somehow — oddly — the wine improved. It was better. It was suddenly worth $35, which is interesting considering that when you first tasted it, that wasn’t your impression at all.

So that’s how you tell an honest story. Now how do you make an honest sale? Since I’m not a saleswoman, I’m not sure. But I am a consumer who has learned how to detect some dishonest sales tactics. Here are some rules to think of the next time you head for your favorite wine shop:

No. 1: “Your opinion is the most important one out there.” You never know if a wine is worth your time and money until YOU open it, pour it into your glass, and take a sip. An award-winning wine with good credentials (age of vines, length of time in the barrel, price, placement within a wine region, education and experience of the vintner, etc.) isn’t a guarantee that this wine will be a good buy for you. It’s not even a guarantee that it’s any good at all.

No. 2: “You’re so intuitive.” Note if the salesperson tries to spark an immediate personal connection and is quick with compliments. Connections are good, but only to a point. Think about it: Are they providing you a service that they are paid to give equally to anyone who walks in the store, or are you making a new friend who also, coincidentally, needs the sale? Either way, be glad you aren’t paying that salesperson by the hour. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed an odd correlation between compliments and salespeople who either work on commission or who have just met someone with the potential to give them more money.

No. 3: “Trust, but verify.” A salesperson who tells you that another wine store’s inventory is overpriced is counting on you not to visit that other store to see the inventory for yourself. Professionalism is key here. Go with your gut and wonder why they would say that in the first place. Sometimes they are telling you the truth, and sometimes they just aren’t.

No. 4: “Beware of scare tactics.” If someone says a wine isn’t worthwhile, but they aren’t able to provide specific reasons or examples as to exactly why, tread carefully. It’s fair to wonder why they can’t explain themselves. Are they just repeating something they heard? Better yet, is what they said even true? Don’t allow them to hide behind an illusion of mystery or drama. If they haven’t had the wine, I think it’s reasonable to wonder why they would have an opinion about it at all.


Wine column no. 53: Some wines defy explanation

July 13, 2014: I have to admit that I’m a bit bewildered. Dave Phinney, the man I most identify with in the wine world, has created a wine I cannot understand. And that bothers me — a lot.

The 2010 Mannequin is a California white wine blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, Muscat and Marsanne grapes. At 15.5 percent alcohol, it’s what many oenophiles might call “hot,” but not for any well-known reason I would recognize, or agree to. First, the flavors are indistinguishable. Orin Swift Cellars’ website claims this wine marries ripe peach and pear with subtle French oak, yet I don’t get any of that. In fact, this wine is so commingled that I have trouble separating the good from the bad, the texture from the flavor. Second, The Mannequin is certainly not subtle. Drinking this wine is like getting hit in the head; there are no undulations here. And when it comes to wine, that’s not what I’m looking for at all.

Thankfully, The Wine Vault on Burkhardt Road has a variety of other wines that will impress. The staff is great at answering questions, too.

The 2012 Tikal Patriota from Mendoza, Argentina, is a blend of 60 percent Malbec and 40 percent Bonarda. Soft, with minor tannins, this is a round red wine that is much smoother than I’d usually expect. It paired well with roasted butternut squash with salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and grilled pork loins seasoned with dried rosemary and garlic. According to www.vineconnections.com, Tikal wines reflect the spirit of Mendoza in that they have a sense of pride, love and celebration.
13.8 percent alcohol. $23.99.

Then, there’s the 2010 Jester, a Shiraz from McLaren Vale, a wine region south of Adelaide in South Australia. This is a version of the wine that Frank Mitolo and Ben Glaetzer had quite a few bottles of during a “now legendary five-hour discussion over a restaurant table” 15 years ago. Their talk led them to chart the course of their lives on the closest thing available — the back of a napkin. Mitolo Wines’ 2010 Jester Shiraz has a blackberry and leather nose, contains some flat acidity and has a long finish. Yet even at 15.2 percent alcohol, it’s not nearly as syrupy, heavy or intense as the typical Molly Dooker Shiraz (which also hails from McLaren Vale.) $22.99.

A dark-skinned grape, Shiraz is Australia’s most popular grape varietal, well known for its inky color and intense (some would say red fruit-bomb) aromas and flavors. It’s also an extraordinarily interesting grape because of its flexibility. Like Zinfandel, this grape carries many passports; but it’s only Shiraz that is most likely to be both silk and steel.

Outside of Australia, Shiraz is mostly known as Syrah. I don’t know why the name changed when this grape headed south of the equator, but I do know that it has the ability to be simultaneously firm and fluid. Unlike any other red wine grape, Syrah/Shiraz is more fully responsive to terroir, meaning it can be both potent and subdued, smooth and rough, sweet and bitter, and acidic and tannic. It is, as well-known wine writer Andrew Jefford said, “the most protean of all red grape varieties. It contains multitudes. No other single red variety is capable of such a range of so many different expressions. And, like a great actor, that protean quality is based not on a desire to display but rather a profound sympathy with circumstances and predicament — which for a grapevine means its physical location.”

Another grape varietal meanders just as well. Zinfandel, it could be said, has had an identity crisis since at least 2002. That’s when it was reported that University of California — Davis grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith and other scientists determined it was the same grape as Primitivo in Italy and Crljenak Kastelanski in Croatia. Recently, I tried a 2009 Cakebread Cellars Zinfandel, a Varsity Liquors purchase that was a perfect pairing with a grilled bacon cheeseburger from Schnucks. This smooth, non-confrontational wine was easy to drink, and to like. It’s not spicy like some Zinfandel, not that spice is necessarily a bad thing. It tasted like strawberries and raisins, and its textures were only enhanced by the meal. This Zinfandel’s strength lies in its ability to blend with the burger in a balanced partnership, adding a bit of black pepper and minor tannins but finishing in a way that’s restrained, refined. Unlike other Zinfandel, this Cakebread isn’t overdone, or too flashy. At 14.1 percent alcohol, this Red Hills, Lake County, Californian is what it is, and I feel fortunate that I was able to appreciate it. $29.99.

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