Wine column no. 56: If you're really looking for substance, just focus on the wine

There are wines. And then there are accessories. 

Who knew, for instance, that you could purchase overalls for your wine bottle, or that you could buy boxed wine packaged in a fashion handbag? There are owl-shaped corkscrews, wine glass covers that double as serving platters, decanters made from recycled windshields, life preserver wine bottle covers, sunglasses constructed from wine barrels, bicycle wine racks, and wine glass charms that exclaim, for all the J.D. Salinger fans out there, that “Holden Caulfield thinks you’re a phony.” 

There are digital wine thermometers shaped to wrap around the exterior of the bottle, bottle bags designed to look like Santa’s pants (milk and cookies not included), pirate-shaped bottle openers, wine weathervanes, wine glass cabinet knobs, actual cork stools, and something called a Koolatron, a portable wine bar on wheels that would have been perfect in that 1960s-era animated sitcom, The Jetsons.

I’m not even going to go into the saint and sinner wine bottle stoppers (one is shaped like the devil, the other like an angel), the wine bottles you can hide in a book, the red wine wipes to remove stains and protect your teeth, or the cork memory cards (just in case you somehow fall into a lake on your way to an important business meeting.)

While I love the ultra-meta, self-deprecating reference to “The Catcher in the Rye” (I think it does everyone some good to see yourself through Holden Caulfield’s eyes at least once in your life), I’m not really an accessory type of person. I long ago gave up on complicated bottle openers that seemed to have been artfully designed by Rube Goldberg yet in reality (and perhaps true to Goldberg’s genius) contributed nothing to the process beyond a maddening sense of inefficiency. 

Perhaps in protest, I now use a basic, dependable corkscrew that a former waiter gave me years ago and that has never failed me. My father has the same philosophy when it comes to drip catchers: He uses a simple, inexpensive scrunchie, which is easily washed and can stretch to fit any bottle’s neck size. 

Neither of these will win design awards. But they are practical, and as I have learned in general about those who take any hobby — running, painting, yoga, etc. — seriously, the real joy is in the hobby itself. The products can be artful and cute, kitschy and bizarre, and some are even useful. But after the fact, when the bottle is empty, and the odd-shaped Rube Goldberg contraption refuses to fit in the drawer, most of the accessories just end up in a pile of rubbish, expensive distractions that really had nothing to do with the wine in the first place. 

That’s not to say that winemakers themselves don’t adopt new ways of marketing, bottling, or making wines. Joel Gott, for instance, a fifth-generation vintner from California, decided to bottle Zinfandel in jugs under the Three Thieves label, which he founded along with Charles Bieler and Roger Scommegna. The trio considered themselves thieves because of the prices they were getting on wine, Gott told Laurie Daniel in the May 2011 issue of Wines & Vines. 

“We decided that a one-liter jug would be such an iconic package to sell Zinfandel in — as it had been done in the 1940s and 50s … There was a lot of nostalgia attached to the jug, but it had somehow lost its appeal in the modern age, so we decided to revive it. We were continually surprised at how well it took off ... Ultimately, we were making 100,000 cases per year. After about five years, we finally decided to discontinue it because the jugs had run their course.”

Gott may have jettisoned the jugs, but he kept the Zinfandel, producing it under his Joel Gott Wines label. I liked the 2011 vintage, which was a bit spicy, with flavors of cinnamon, brown sugar and cedar. This thin, light red was sourced from Lodi, Russian River, Dry Creek, Mendocino and Amador appellations in California, and it’s ideal for hot, summer months. 14.3 percent alcohol. The Fresh Market. $19.99.

Another Joel Gott creation is the 2010 Alakai California red wine. This Rhone-style blend of 77 percent Grenache, 17 percent Syrah, 4 percent Mourvèdre and 2 percent Petite Syrah came from select vineyards in Monterey County and Knight’s Valley, according to K&L Wine Merchants. As far as Rhone blends go, it’s less unraveled than some Cotes-du-Rhone I’m more familiar with. Those French wines often give you three things: red fruits, black pepper and a rough set of tannins. But Gott’s 2010 is what the French would call “bien équilibré,” or well balanced. 14.4 percent alcohol. Winetree East. $16.59.


Wine column no. 55: Beware of the bait and switch

Aug. 10, 2014: They call it the bait and switch.
You order a bottle of wine off the menu and watch as they bring it to your table. Yet the waiter doesn’t pop the cork right in front of you. Instead, he takes the bottle to a different location, purportedly to open it and pour the wine there. When he returns, it’s with full glasses but no bottle, leaving you to wonder: Is this the same wine I asked for?
Here’s another one: You order a specific vintage from the wine list. The waiter brings the bottle, pops the cork and pours it into your glass. Distracted by table talk, you quickly take a sip and nod to the waiter in approval. Several glasses and an hour or so later, the bottle is now completely empty. That’s when you notice you were served the wrong vintage. But now that the meal is done, it’s clearly too late to say anything.
Or is it? Google the words “wine bait and switch” and you’ll find about four pages of stories, allegations and commentary on this tactic.
Dining patrons have complained on TripAdvisor.com, and bloggers have fought back, too, giving specific examples as to how they or others they know were tricked or manipulated into accepting a wine they hadn’t asked for.
And it’s about more than just the wine. Vintages aren’t always priced the same. A 2002 The Prisoner Zinfandel blend (a rare find these days) would be much more costly than a 2008 The Prisoner Zinfandel blend — as it should be. But to bill someone for a 2002 when they actually only received a 2008? That’s not right.
Neither is pretending to have something you don’t really have. In December 2013, a federal jury found Rudy Kurniawan, of Indonesia, guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company. No stranger to the courtroom, the 37-year-old had made millions by selling hundreds of collectible bottles at auctions and in private sales. Yet his image “was tarnished when 22 lots of rare Burgundies supposedly from Domaine Ponsot were withdrawn from a 2008 Acker, Merrall & Condit auction at the request of proprietor Laurent Ponsot,” according to Wine Spectator. A “collector with doubts on the wines’ authenticity had alerted Ponsot, who traveled to New York to make sure they were withdrawn. Asked where he had found the wines, Kurniawan was evasive.”
It turned out that Kurniawan owed millions of dollars to Acker and some of its clients. Billionaire collector Bill Koch filed a lawsuit against Kurniawan in 2009. In February 2012, wines consigned by Los Angeles restaurateur and wine dealer Antonio Castanos were withdrawn from an auction after collectors raised doubts about their authenticity. Castanos later testified that he was a straw man for Kurniawan. An FBI sweep of Kurniawan’s home found hundreds of bottles, labels, corks, stamps and notes that looked like the raw materials for making rare wines.
Kurniawan now faces a maximum of 20 years on each count and possible fines.
No one in Evansville would do that, of course. We have plenty of good eateries that deliver on their promises and are happy to make it up to you if they make a mistake. But don’t let a crowded restaurant and a harried waiter give you the impression that you don’t have a right to get what you asked for. You do. Everyone does. And the more consumers insist on being treated fairly, the more likely they actually will be.
Here are some wines that I believe are worth your time and money:
The 2011 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley sauvignon blanc is blended with 24 percent semillon, a low-acid white wine grape. Californian sauvignon blanc wines are often crisp, citrusy and refreshing. The semillon grapes help to soften the sauvignon blanc’s natural acidity. At 13.5 percent alcohol, this blend has light lemon and pear flavors and is more of a pleasant dinner companion than a star. Varsity Liquors. $28.99.
The 2011 Joel Gott 815 cabernet sauvignon has an aromatic cherry or cassis nose. Light and inky, it offers some minor, ending acidity and is easy to drink, even on a hot, humid evening. I think this wine is ready to drink now. The Fresh Market. $19.99.
The 2012 Joel Gott 815 cabernet sauvignon is more concentrated than the 2011, with some tannins and an ending bitterness. Gott said it tastes like roasted blue fruit, graham crackers, cherry cola and blackberries. The Fresh Market. $19.99.
“The one recommendation I would have is decant it or pour it into a water pitcher,” the winemaker said. “All it does is open up the fruit in the wine and expose a lot more flavors by giving it a bunch of air right before you drink it.”
Both Joel Gott wines contain 13.9 percent alcohol.
Victoria Grabner is a freelancer who has blogged about wine for several years.

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.