3.23.2014

Wine column no. 46: Honesty is the best policy

March 23, 2014: We toast graduations, new jobs, weddings, New Year’s Eve, and retirements. But that’s the stuff of champagne, mostly. Wine is usually for the events in between, like dinners with friends and family. Yet some wines merit toasts, too.


I don’t think I’ve ever met a wine aficionado who isn’t in some way sentimental about at least one bottle he or she has found in the past. My father still talks about the 1978 Shown & Sons Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon he had in California (the vineyard is now called Heitz Cellar Trailside Vineyard.) For my mother, it is the 2004 Topaz, a California late harvest dessert wine. Her eyes brighten and she always remarks, sadly, that you can’t find that wine anymore.
When my sister turned 30, my father brought out a 1982 Baron Philippe de Rothschild Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux from Pauillac, France, to serve at her celebratory dinner. He had bought it many years ago with the clear intention of serving it on that birthday. For those who appreciate wine, vintages that correlate to a loved one’s birth year can be a thoughtful tribute that will likely be used to honor future celebratory occasions. Especially if you buy a case of that particular wine, these are the types of gifts that keep giving back.
Then there are wines that you think are worth the effort but just aren’t sure will be able to handle the pressure of being opened at that particular time. Should you serve it now, after it’s been in your cellar for decades, or would it be better to wait another five years — almost as if it were on a five-year plan — to share it with others? In these cases, it’s really hard to say what the best course of action is, unless you have more than one of that particular bottle and can essentially sample it throughout the years. Some forward-thinking people take that approach, knowing that wines do improve over time. Others are more willing to gamble and will accept the wine as it is right now. And then there are others who continue to store the unopened bottle, waiting, possibly, for what they think will be the right time. The problem with that approach is you may end up inadvertently waiting too long. Even unopened wine will eventually turn to vinegar.
Doing some research helps. Plenty of wine writers have insights into the region your wine hails from and the positive and negative aspects of that vintage’s growing year. You might even be able to find someone else who has had that same wine at a different point in time. It’s also very important to make sure that you’ve treated that particular bottle well throughout its time with you (there’s no way to tell how it was treated before you encountered it at the store).
Finally, one more way to complement your wine’s characteristics, should you decide to open it, would be to build a meal completely around it. Whether the wine will shrink or stand tall in the face of all that unanticipated attention is hard to predict. In the end, that depends on the strength of the wine itself. But certain carefully selected dishes can provide the support it needs for it to be at its best.
Once you do decide to open the wine, realize you’re taking a chance. After all, you chose to serve it at the table in the first place; no one else made you do it. You aren’t obligated to like it, of course. But don’t make it into something it’s not. There can be a lot of pressure when talking about a wine, particularly if it’s something substantial you’re uneasy sharing at the table, or if you’re worried about what your guests might think. If you haven’t had this particular wine before, be honest with your guests; you don't benefit from pretending to have knowledge that you don't actually have. Don’t use false or trumped-up descriptors that demean the wine and misrepresent its meaning to you. 
If you do like the wine, be happy about the reasons it’s caught your attention. It’s unusual that a wine you’ve selected for an important event would fit so well at the table. Celebrate that it’s a good match. Accurate descriptors help you to better define its meaning to you. This helps draw a clear line between the idea of the wine and the wine itself.
Then raise a glass and say what you have to say.

(*This version includes some parts of the original, before they were cut from the Courier's version.)

Wine column no. 45: Sleight of hand — and cheese — can salvage disappointing cheese

March 2, 2014: People tell me it happens all the time. They buy a wine based on published, glowing reviews and yet, when they serve it at the dinner table, it’s just not what they expected.
Maybe that bottle of chardonnay is too acidic. Maybe you’ve just opened a cabernet sauvignon that’s too tannic. Either way, while the wine isn’t yet corked, it still doesn’t pass the smell test.
Here are some ways to rescue a bottle with a poor flavor profile from the clutches of the sink. Think distractions. There are many.
Cheese is a delicious conduit toward making a wine tolerable. Hard cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan are good pairings with tannic wines. For acidic wines, try something creamy, like Brie. Salty blue cheese pairs well with sweet ports, too.
In all of these cases, it’s about the art of disguise. You are trying to shift attention away from the poor-quality wine itself. Wine is a subjective experience and, in every case, it’s best to do your own research. Yet keep this sales secret in mind: Sometimes something unctuous helps to change the subject and can even sell more wines.
If the wine is distasteful yet still must be served, consider lowering its temperature. Wine served at cool temperatures won’t give off as strong of a nose. Cold temperatures can be an effective tactic in muting offending flavors that expose inconsistencies or fundamental problems within the glass. Besides, very cold, bad wine can temporarily stun your senses, especially if you expected more from the bottle.
Here’s a wine that aims high: The 2010 Cuvée Le Bec is a blend of syrah (44 percent), Grenache (34 percent), mourvedre (13 percent) and counoise (nine percent) grapes, the likes of which hail from Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. It is Beckmen Vineyards’ interpretation of a specific style of red Côtes-du-Rhône.
The Rhône Valley is north of Provence, a province in southeastern France. The four California-grown grape varietals in the Le Bec fit the profile of a southern Rhône-style wine, with one major difference: terroir. There is no one English word to describe terroir. In French, it can refer to soil, climate or orientation to the sun and elevation, all of which ultimately impact the flavors of the wine that end up in your glass.
While the grapes themselves can easily be transported to, and grown in, various other parts of the world, terroir is particular to the regions where the wine is produced. It’s a function of what exists yet isn’t always seen, acknowledged or heard.
The best southern-Rhône-style reds, in my opinion, are robust yet nuanced. They are often layered with distinctive red fruits, tannins and black pepper, and they remain some of my favorite wines largely because of their complexity.
Grown from grapes in the Santa Ynez Valley, Beckmen Vineyards’ Cuvée Le Bec has a different approach. At 14 percent alcohol, this red wine lacks depth, yet still manages a smooth finish. In some viticultural circles, it’s possible to negotiate an intricate balance between the two. Others demand one over the other.
Beckmen Vineyards is a Central Coast winery founded by Tom Beckmen and his son, Steve, in 1994. Tom Beckmen, a self-described “music man,” was a traveling salesman who pioneered the merger of music and computer applications. When he sold Roland Corp. U.S., a leading manufacturer and distributor of electronic music instruments, it was to develop the winery as a hands-on farmer.
Tom grew up gathering onions and picking tomatoes from the soil outside Chicago, where he spent his childhood working on a ranch.
With his father, Steve applied that work ethic and winemaking style to “maintaining character and diversity. During any given vintage, Steve individually ferments as many as 100 small lots of fruit, often employing techniques such as native yeast fermentation or whole cluster pressing to highlight the personality of a given clone or block. Described by Steve as both “hands-off” and “hands-on,” this approach has resulted in an acclaimed portfolio of wines that consistently bridge the divide between power and elegance.”
Power and elegance are good, strong words. So are character and diversity. I wish Beckmen Vineyards all the best in achieving its goals.
This wine is sold at The Winetree on Weinbach Avenue for $18.99.

Wine column returns to The Evansville Courier & Press

Just a note to those who may read this blog:

I resigned from Evansville Living magazine (and its parent publication, Tucker Publishing Group) on the morning of Jan. 24, 2014, after working there as its managing editor for more than a year.

I worked very hard for Tucker Publishing Group. I left the company for a number of very good reasons.

Now, with one substantial change, my wine column has returned to the Evansville Courier & Press. The blog title is now growingoneofthegrabners.blogspot.com. It's just me writing the column now.

I wish Greg and his new business, Frontier Geospatial Solutions LLC, well. He may be reached via www.frontiergeospatial.com.

Thanks for reading.

Victoria Grabner