Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving: A Retrospective.

Wine to go with turkey.
Having more or less survived the first rush of holiday buying I thought it was time to consider some aspects of wine drinking and retailing after the fact. If you look really closely to the photo above and see past the cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes (regular & sweet), the vegan pot pie and stuffed onion you will see a piece of turkey. In the middle of stabbing wantonly about the plate and swilling Saumur-Champigny from Terry Germain, I was reminded of those customers asking for wine to go with turkey, just turkey.

There is still a common cry for pinot noir from most people, probably because it’s the always the most heavily recommended wine from any newspaper or magazine wine column. Why is that you might ask? I have a theory, and it’s not the movie Sideways. Before the mid 90’s and the early aughts there was a lack of free and intelligent wine information in the form of the internet; blogs, wikipedia, wine writers from magazines, newspapers, etc. The literature most prominently available at the time (Wine Advocate & Spectator) was saturated with 90+ point wines of massive alcohol and heavy handed new oak. The kind of wines so extreme in every way that they lacked balance necessary to ease along a Thanksgiving meal.

I’d like to see anyone try to put down a bottle of Molly Dooker, or any Zinfandel at 16.5% abv, and not get into some sort of argument or fall asleep at the table.

So the existing writers grasped onto the buoy of pinot noir for Thanksgiving. Why not? Lower natural alcohol, higher natural acidity, freshness of fruit (ideally) - it all adds up to something one could easily enjoy with a meal. This advice was contagious, and besides, it’s easier to go into any ol’ retail shop and ask if they have pinot noir. Going to a shop and finding red from Chinon or pelaverga based wine from Piedmont in Italy is tougher at times.

The advice I gave to people was to look for mid-weight wines of balance, lower alcohol, and freshness. Aside from red Burgundy I was recommending a lot of lighter weight reds from southern Rhone, northern Italy, or the Loire valley, even some Austrian zweigelt or blaufrankisch. It’s advice that will hold through all the big meals in the holiday season.

For the record, I took a bottle of Herman J. Wiemer’s 2006 Brut (disgorged in 2010) and Domaine des Roches Neuves 2010 Saumur Champigny.

I could always say drink what you like though. All those people I saw drinking Yellowtail Shiraz at a b.y.o. sushi place in Philly can’t be wrong... can they?

I guess I need a bottle of wine because it’s thanksgiving...
I had at least a half dozen customers over the week whom I found wandering about the wine floor and each had their own shopping cart full of fabulous Belgian beer (we had a sale going on.) The usual disclaimer was, “I know my beer, but I’m lost on wine...” and they wanted a bottle or two of wine just in case someone actually wanted wine with their meal.

I say pair nothing but beer with your meal, you’ll do just fine. The same principles apply to beer as they do to wine. This is not the time for barley wines, imperial stouts, or Belgian quads. This is the time for saisons, triples, German lagers/pilsners, Flemish sours and sour brown ales. Pair the whole meal with beer and embrace it. If you have a 95 year old grandmother that only drinks white zinfandel, get her that bottle. She’s 95, she’s earned it. Otherwise, get some seriously good beer and enjoy.

Shopping the day of
1. Don’t do it.
2. If you must, then do it early. After 11 a.m. all bets are off.
3. If it’s after 11 a.m. you will find yourself in the company of shoppers who either can’t stand sobriety for more than six hours and did not prepare well for the limited retail hours. Or you might find yourself rubbing elbows with ‘serious’ wine buyers who only purchase wine that comes in a carafe bottle.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should you really be paying attention to wine points?

In October the Delaware Rock Gym had a climbing competition. To prepare for such a thing many people had to create routes with beginnings and ends that would have a difficulty based on the moves required to succeed in each climb from start to finish.

To establish that difficulty we (staff and friends not planning on competing) would climb the boulder problems and weigh in on what we thought the difficulty was. While myself and Danielle thought one way, some of our co-workers felt another about the rankings in certain categories.

Now what could this possibly have to do with wine?

In rating these climbs for difficulty we were all doing so based on our personal strengths and weaknesses, whether we admitted it or not, it is what we do. I, for example, have tremendous reach but comparatively low strength. Meanwhile, a few of my fellow climbers don't have the same wingspan that I do, but they make up for it in sheer power. So when each person attempts, or completes, a climb they claim a difficulty based on how easy it was for them to finish said climb. This is also what happens when wine is rated on a point system.

In climbing one can say there are objective moves, holds, or techniques that are more advanced and require a more difficult grade. In wine, once one has moved passed the decision of whether or not a wine is flawed or sound, it could be said that there are (reasonably) objective levels of acidity, sugar, or tannin that equate to a certain flavor profile. Whether that flavor profile merits 100 points (!) or whether it rates a measly 94 points [ :( ] depends entirely on any number of factors.

If you like the idea of ranking wines against each other, and at times themselves, it could be worthwhile to follow these ratings. Though some of us in the industry, not that it is a big secret, do not put a lot of stock in wine ratings.

Picture a child's report card; in the second half of 5th grade little Ruddiger Fitzpatrick received a C- in literature. Does that mean you would assign a C- to Fitzpatrick in comprehending, discussing, and creating within the literary arts for his whole life? Or even rate him the same within Russian, Irish, Japanese, or Estonian lit? No. That grade is just a screen shot of his experience at one moment in time, hell even Einstein failed once or twice.

Wine is precisely the same way. Much like the wee Fitzpatrick will (or will not) grow in his ability to appreciate and perceive literature, wine the first year it is in bottle will taste and rate quite differently than the same wine 5 to 7 years after it has been put into bottle. The same wine will also change whether you have it by itself, aside a big honkin' steak, or with a salad.

To me grading wines on a static scale in some sort of tasting vacuum makes no sense, but that doesn't mean my opinions on the scale are right, it just means that there are folks who will agree and disagree with me.

Whether or not you like a numerical point system, the key is finding those whose palates you agree with engaging in a little discussion or research to help find a wine you like. If you like solid clear cut numbers, find a reviewer you like and look for their points. It doesn't matter if it's Jancis Robinson, Eric Asimov, Robert Parker, or Jon Rimmerman, what matters is you find a kindred spirit and you make sure it is their points as opposed to an arbitrary 92 points from 'wine and grape drink magazine.'

Just remember: high points, or cost, does not mean you'll enjoy a wine (or beer) and a lack there of does not mean you won't enjoy it. There is always some subjectivity to what you taste!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

5 Grapes / regions that more people need to start trying.

I'm always happy to see people shopping for wine, don't get me wrong, but it seems like there are grapes or places people get pigeonholed into and settle in comfortably never to extricate themselves for something new. What I find most striking is the avoidance to branching out because, as one perplexing customer put to me, "I've never had it before, how do I know if I'll like it?"

That makes me wonder about their existence as a whole. No travel? No new food? No new movies? The hermit lifestyle must be difficult if not comforting.

1.) Beaujolais - The wines labeled Beaujolais Villages are often easy, fruit forward, and possessing a tell tale aromatic of some carbonic maceration (they only ferment by the whole bunch, baby!) The real magic comes in the 'crus' of Beaujolais: Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon, Chenas, Cote du Brouilly, etc. What really fascinates me about these wines are not the initial fruit aromas but the sneaky aromas and flavors on the side. The saline savoriness of Cote du Brouilly, the hint of something animal in Moulin-a-Vent, the flowers in Fleurie, and the stones in Chenas.

Pricing is pretty fair too, the top of the top-hard-to-get-geek-out-over and go crazy Beaujolais are in the low $40's. Not cheap, but when compared to Burgundy proper, practically anything from California, or top flight Bordeaux these wines downright cheap.

2.) Riesling - Yes Paul Grieco has been doing Summer of Riesling since 2008 and yes practically every interview I've ever read with a sommelier in any food and wine magazine has them raving about riesling, but there is a reason for that. There's focus, age-ability, and a complete range of dry with mouth searing acidity to dessert wine sweet that coats the entire mouth like the finest grape-y juice from the peaks of Mount Olympus.

The problem for riesling is when it's maligned by its out of balance incarnations that have either too much or too little sugar or acid. The power of many a Rheingau, the pleasant hint of sweetness underlying so many Mosel bottles, and the crazy minerality of Wachau in Austria. Come on, these wines show so much of where they're from and frankly, they are just cool.

3. Greece - The desire to have more people interested in Greek wines, honestly, is a quasi selfish desire. Just like my desire to have more people interested in Corsican wine (the more people interested, the more that sell, the more that sell the more I can taste!) The wines I've had from Greece to date have as versatile a range as many other parts of the world; reds that are anywhere from plush and soft to peppery and downright animal, and whites with flowers, fruit, and minerals to keep any one interested.

And for the problem, as there always is one: what do people know about Greece? Ouzo and retsina. Not a good start. Reds from Naoussa or Nemea are not huge leaps for people who drink some more classic incarnations of tempranillo or perhaps drier lighter weight Loire cab francs. The most interesting whites I've tasted so far have been from the island of Santorini. Assyrtiko is the primary varietal used in primarily volcanic soil. They have a persistent minerality that should be appreciable by higher end albarino drinkers or fans of Chablis.

4. Savoie & Jura - When I started at the 'ol State Line we had 3 or 4 wines from Jura and maybe 3 from Savoie. Now we have closer to 8 from Jura and about a dozen from Savoie (and I'll include Bugey since it's just across the river.) The regions themselves are in the east of France, Jura is about an hour east of Burgundy, and Savoie is right up against the Swiss border on the south side of Lake Geneva.

These wines have a little bit easier of a time getting their foot in the door than the ones I've mentioned so far. They have basically no reputation among non-serious wine drinkers, which means it's tough to bring a prejudice to the table, pricing starts at $10 a bottle and goes up to $80 plus for some tougher to get dessert wines, and there is a good range including delicious bubblies. The only aspect jarring to some people is the oxidative and high toned style exhibited in wines from Jura (often Sherry like.) With a little introduction though, some people take very strongly to these wines, myself included.

5. Burgundy - This may seem a bit confusing since Burgundy is probably the most famous wine region in the world, with some of the most expensive bottles, and some of the best known domaines. Burgundy does fine amongst serious collectors and has some great fans, but getting everyday wine drinkers into it sure is tough.

Whenever I happen upon some one in the shop looking for pinot noir once they know where we keep the Oregon and California pinot noir I would probably have to physically drag them to the red Burgundy section, because for some reason there is major aversion to even looking at the Burgundies. Even though, balk if you will, that's where the best pinot value is in my opinion.

White Burgundy is tougher too. Either most of our customers come looking for white Burgundy, or they come looking for a chardonnay they recognize. Almost always Californian. For all the $10 to $15 Cali wine you can buy, there are rivers of Macon Villages at the same price. For all the over oaked, over alcoholic, over malo-lactic, and over priced Cali wines you can buy there stellar ranges of flavor under $40 in Burgundy. When I think of the wild yeast fermented Guillemot-Michel in the mid $20's or the intensely rich, but balanced, Vire-Clesse from Thevenet at about $34, I can't believe some of the things people charge on the west coast.

I would be concerned I was getting too geeky, but I didn't mention Ribolla Gialla or orange wines made by Sistercian Nuns once, so I think I'm still safe.