Wine column no. 68: Wine quest yields wins, losses

March 22, 2015: One of my favorite things to do is to wander the aisles of wine shops. Like writers in bookstores or car enthusiasts in dealerships, I can spend hours examining new, changed, or unusual offerings. One grape varietal I always look for is Cabernet Franc.

Most people haven’t heard of this grape. It’s not the biggest or most famous wine out there, it doesn’t tend to turn heads, and if it’s known as anything at all, it’s usually as a support mechanism for bolder, more bountiful wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet it has backbone, books say. It adds finesse. It also happens to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. (Its other parent is Sauvignon blanc, according to Carole P. Meredith, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis and an international authority on genetic manipulation and analysis of grapevines.)

On its own, though, Cabernet Franc can be tricky. Washington State can make a solid, smooth, medium-bodied Cabernet Franc. California’s Lake County has produced impressive, mildly fruity Cabernet Franc, too. But in the Loire Valley, France, some 100 percent Cabernet Franc can turn out light, tannic, inelegant, and reeking of green bell peppers. And those from South Africa? Maybe it’s bad luck on my part, but the ones I’ve had have come across as musty. These wines are smooth, but I just can’t get over what I can only describe as cellar qualities.

These inconsistencies are probably why I keep coming back to this grape. If Californian Cabernet Sauvignon is reliably reliable, then come-from-anywhere-Cabernet Franc is reliably unreliable. It’s like the wild card in a poker game; it keeps things interesting. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about the art of studying wine, it’s that you’ve got to lose a hand or two. If you’re always winning at wine, then you haven’t stretched yourself at all. 

One wine region that’s full of worthwhile surprises is the Loire Valley. It contains slightly more than 185,000 acres of vines and is about two-thirds the size of the more-famous Bordeaux region, according to Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. It also happens to be a major grape-growing region for Cabernet Franc, even if Loire-style Cabernet Franc isn’t, typically, my favorite. But that’s OK. If you’re having fish or roasted chicken, a chilled red Chinon or red Saumur (appellations that produce Cabernet Franc) is probably a good bet. These wines are typically light, mildly fruity and, at around 12 or 13 percent alcohol, easy to drink.

There’s also a lot to be said for mild wines that don’t overwhelm the table. Pascal Jolivet’s 2013 Sancerre offers lemon when it warms up but is otherwise flat and even and would go well with fresh oysters or scallops. Sancerre, a style of Sauvignon Blanc, is a fixture in the Loire Valley, which prides itself on dry, refreshing white wines. Sancerre is also very food friendly. If you can’t find fresh oysters or scallops, then pair this wine with a goat cheese salad, or with chicken. I actually had it with lightly seasoned, pan-fried pork. Innocuous and straightforward, this wine isn’t likely to offend your tastes, and at 12.5 percent alcohol, it’s easy to handle, too. Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park, Chicago. $27.99.

But if you find yourself leaning toward bigger, fully flavored wines with a slight zing, try the 2012 Thorn, produced by The Prisoner Wine Co. Winemaker Jen Beloz created this blend of Merlot, Syrah and Malbec from Hudson, Stagecoach, Antica and Trefethen vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Beloz worked with vintner Dave Phinney to keep his “house style” for The Prisoner, probably one of his most famous wines, after he sold the brand to The Prisoner Wine Co. in 2009. The Thorn fits in well within the typically bold family of Phinney wines. At Varsity Liquors, where it’s sold for $43.99, all the Phinney and Phinney-influenced wines are conveniently grouped together in one setting.

At 15.2 percent alcohol, the Thorn is surprisingly mellow, and it went very well with Vietnamese spring rolls as part of a Friday night take-out dinner from Vecchio’s Italian Market, which has a new location at 300 W. Jennings St. in Newburgh, Indiana. Normally, I would have served a slightly sweet Riesling or spicy Gewurztraminer with the spring rolls. But the Thorn was well paired, even against the tasty dipping sauce that contained high amounts of vinegar. 


Wine column no. 67: Some labels tweak the meaning of beauty

March 8, 2015: Many remember when two men killed 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, on Jan. 7. The shootings were allegedly prompted by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The violence contributed to a continuing global conversation about the impact of political and religious satire, the likes of which also has a long history here in the United States.

What do Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression have to do with wine? Plenty, and in different ways. According to Robert Camuto’s story in the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, three of the 12 people killed in those attacks were among France’s most outrageous wine-label designers: Stéphane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac.

“They were my friends,” Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe said. For more than 40 years, he commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that ranged from drunken caricatures to sexually explicit humor. “Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the bull---- in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bull----.”

Descrambe sold his St.-Emilion vineyards in 2008. Yet he and his son, Olivier, still produce about 3,300 cases per year of Bordeaux appellation wine under his Château Renaissance label, which also features cartoons. His wines are exported within Europe and to Japan, but not to the United States. “Too complicated,” Descrambe sighed to Camuto. If he did export his wines to the U.S., he would likely have to change the labels. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has repeatedly rejected sexually suggestive wine labels, Wine Spectator said.

But this same government bureau allows winemakers to push the envelope in other ways. From wines with labels that probably aren’t really referencing the word for a female dog, to wines that market themselves as sexual chocolate, it appears that many words pass muster even if the images hitting those points home may not. Yet if it seems like wine labels are becoming more open to provocation, keep in mind that art and wine can blend gently, too.

The 2013 Decoy sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County, California, is a graceful wine with citrus notes that doesn’t overplay its hand. Its label — of a pintail duck — is peaceful, too. Zimbabwean artist Michael Allard painted it from a carving of an actual decoy. ($21.99. Varsity Liquors.)

Meanwhile, almost every year since 1945, Château Mouton Rothschild has used its labels to display and promote the artwork of famous painters like Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, according to www.mcnees.org. The images aim to visually please rather than to incite, yet they are also clearly more than just paintings on a backdrop.

Are all vineyards focused on beauty? Some might be — if you tweak the meaning of beauty. Take Orin Swift’s 2013 Abstract, a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, California. At 15.7 percent alcohol, this wine is heavy on alcohol fumes yet still manages to be light and almost fluffy. Its flavors evoke black pepper, coffee and blackberry. But given its label, the wine itself seems beside the point.

The label is a mishmash of images — some altered, others not — jumbled together in a collage that includes Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth II, naked women, someone’s family photographs, a smoking cowboy and, for good measure, one tiny shot of Marilyn Monroe. There are so many photos on the label that your eye is called to the only words that might attempt to make sense of them all: Vandalism is beautiful.

Now that’s a provocative statement that I doubt many local residents would agree with — even if it’s just on a $31.99 wine bottle from Varsity Liquors. Yet the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved it. So what makes words more tolerable than images? Why is using the word “sexual” on a wine label any different from presenting a visual image that effectively says the same thing?

Vandalism, after all, isn’t just visual. It’s not just something scribbled on street signs or under the Lloyd Expressway. It doesn’t disappear just because you turn off the lights. Want to throw trash on a concept or idea? Then just muck it up with falsities. Want to disrupt a process? Then subvert it with distraction. If you’re going to tweak the meaning of beauty, then you have to tweak the meaning of vandalism, too.

I don’t think Charlie Hebdo’s staff members deserved to lose their lives because some claimed they published degrading art that demeaned a specific religion. Yet there are limits to what some people will accept. Those who push boundaries accept these risks. It takes guts to say what you think. It also takes guts to accept criticism for doing so. Strong cities like Paris know this.

Comedian Fran Lebowitz once riffed on a well-known adage when she said, “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

She was joking, of course. The original statement, itself a collage of different concepts, uses the word “people” in place of wine. But it sure is interesting how trading one little word for another can distort the meaning of an entire sentence. You don’t need an image to do that. Sometimes, words are enough.

Victoria Grabner has blogged about wine for several years.
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