Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bargain Hunting, Stamp Collecting, and Other Obessions

There are many dangers in getting "into" wine (including the dull hangover I have as I sit here writing this column against deadline for a cruel and heartless editor). One of the unique dangers of getting interested in wine - as opposed to food or cheese, or other such gastronomically refined pursuits - is that wine has the peculiar ability to bring out the hoarder in us. Unlike food or cheese, wine keeps and can be stored for long periods. Worse than that, wine actually gets better the longer you store it.

You have no idea what that simple fact has done to my life. I admit it started out innocently enough; a few bottles on a shelf in the kitchen being saved for a special occasion. Then I bought a 44-bottle wooden wine rack from CostPlus. I felt okay with that. I mean, 44 bottles is more than anyone could ever possibly have. I’d never fill it, right? Then I bought another. That was okay because that rack was going to go in the basement to hold the good stuff. Then I bought yet another. I didn’t even try to rationalize that one.

But then came the 100-bottle wine cooler. A hulk of a thing, it sits protectively brooding in the corner of the dining room, like a mother hen warming her eggs. I did have to rationalize that, “It was a great deal! Half the price you’d expect to pay for a wine cooler!” And while that’s true (we even got free delivery!), it was beginning to become clear that I had a problem.

That’s right, my name’s Tony and my house is too small to store all of my wine.

I currently have…well I don’t know exactly how many bottles I currently have, but I estimate there are somewhere around 250 bottles of wine scattered around the house. There’s the wine cooler quietly humming away in the corner along with racks in the living room, back room, kitchen, 20 or so bottles stashed away in a cabinet somewhere, and a few bottles in the fridge. So far, the bedroom and the bathrooms are the only “wine-free” zones in the house.

But that pales in comparison to the collections some people have. I know people who have actually turned their basements into climate-controlled cellars capable of holding a thousand bottles, complete with custom display racks and computer-controlled inventory systems. I know another woman who keeps $35-50,000 worth of wine in her house.

Wine collecting is a hobby (illness, sickness, disease – whatever) related to, but quite distinct from the hobby of actually drinking and enjoying wine. For some reason, wine appeals to all sorts of human foibles aside from boozing; everything from bargain hunting to stamp collecting. People even collect wine as a serious investment, selling the bottles once they reach a certain value.

But for me, the main thing driving my “collection” is that fact that there are so many interesting types of wine that I have never tried before. Every time I go into a wine shop, I feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s always something new that I have to try. But – try as hard as I might have last night – I can’t drink them all as fast as I can buy them.

Honestly, that’s part of the beauty of wine. There are wonderful, unique wines from all over the world, waiting to be enjoyed. And you should make an effort to always try something new.

This week, go out and buy a viognier (vee-own-YAY) instead of a chardonnay. Buy a South American malbec (mall-BECK) instead of a merlot. Get out of the rut of drinking the same wines over and over. There’s a whole world of wine you’ve never tried. And remember, Home Depot is having a sale on wine coolers.

Wine of the Week

2003 Berryessa Gap Malbec

Berryesa Gap is a small family-run winery in Winters. Though you wouldn't think of Winters as a wine capital, I've been impressed with their wines since the first time I tasted them, and if you want to try a malbec, this is a great one to start with.

Surprizingly floral on the nose, with just a hint of tar and lots of dark berry fruit. Amazingly dense on the palate, with lots of blackberry fruit and licorice. Unlike some malbecs, this one is quite smooth on the finish, with mild, well integrated tannins. This is an easy to drink and easy to like wine that almost reminds me of an Australian Shiraz. The 2004 vintage of this wine won a Regional Best in Class medal in the 2006 California State Fair. Available from the winery at 4 stars.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Gastronomic Nightmare Before Christmas

Face it; the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner is a gastronomic nightmare. We’ve all grown up with it, so to us a Thanksgiving feast is comfort food of the most comforting kind. But to a foreigner trying to get an “authentic taste” of American culture and cuisine, the bizarre combination of foods presented with fanfare on a Thanksgiving table may only serve to convince them of the culinary barbarity of America.

Personally, I never paid any attention to this until I started getting interested in wine and how different wines go with different foods – you know, the old saw of “red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat.” Those simplistic rules are considered outdated today, and in their place a whole science has grown up around “pairing” wines with food.

Some pairings are no-brainers, such as cabernet sauvignon with a big juicy steak, but that peculiar American institution of Thanksgiving isn’t so easy. You’ve got this bland, dry hunk of dead bird parked in the middle of the table along with wildly spiced stuffing (does parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme ring a bell?), weird gravy, God-awful gooey orange sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows, and – the pièce de résistance – cranberry sauce. Who came up with this menagerie of flavors? And how the heck can you find a wine to pair with such a cacophonous collection of culinary comestibles?

The short answer is that you can’t. No single wine is going to go well with everything on the table. So, what to do? Serve three wines with dinner? Only a real wine snob would do that, so we’ll look at the most popular options, and I’ll leave it to you to make the best choice.

Before we get to specific wines, here are a few general pointers. Avoid strongly tannic reds like cabernets. These heavy wines will overpower or fight with everything on the table (cabernet and cranberry sauce is guaranteed to cause a mouth-puckering sensation of such power than you might actually swallow your entire face). Look for wines with good acidity. Acidity adds “crispness” to wines and helps cleanse your palate as you move from one food to another.

Riesling (REES-ling) is probably my personal top contender. Either a dry or off-dry Riesling will go well with pretty much everything. It won’t fight the sweet potatoes, and its slightly tart sweetness should compliment the cranberry sauce. It’s light enough to not fight with the stuffing or overwhelm the turkey.

Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) is a rising star among Thanksgiving wines. Not as heavy or tannic as a cab or syrah, a pinot with enough smoothness and fruit can get along with most anything on the table (except maybe the sweet potatoes). Not to heavy for the turkey or too tannic for the cranberry sauce.

Champagne – A good, dry champagne with sufficient acid can be a good match for a Thanksgiving dinner, and it will add a touch of celebration to the meal. Avoid the cheap stuff like Cooks, and go for a truly dry sparkler. Should go well with the bird and stuffing, but might be a bit odd with the sweeter side dishes.

Chardonnay is the “no-brainer” wine for Thanksgiving, but it actually is a poor match with all but the bird. All those different flavors are going to overwhelm all but the crispest chards. It’s a pass in my book.

Zinfandel (ZIN-fin-dell) has suddenly become the big new wine to have with Thanksgiving dinner, but I can’t figure out why. Zinfandels are typically big fruit bombs, with lots of alcohol. To me, the huge fruit in a zin would overwhelm or fight with pretty much everything on the table. Of course, I haven’t actually tried it, so maybe it’s a fantastic match – but I have my doubts.

Other wines to consider include Pinot Gris (PEE-noh GREE) and Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner).

Wine of the Week

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (BLAN de NWAHR)

Blanc de Noir (literally "white of blacks") is a dry sparkling wine (that is, "Champagne" - but you're not supposed to refer to sparkling wines as Champagne unless they come from Champagne, France) made primarily from red pinot noir grapes. However, the skins are removed early in the wine-making process, leaving a elegant light salmon color wine behind. This is a fine sparkling wine for Thanksgiving dinner. It's flavorful and full-bodied enough to stand up to the stronger flavors, while delicate enough to not overwhelm the more subtle flavors. Hints of cherry and strawberry. Nicely balanced acidity. Available at Creekside Cellars for $23.99. 4 stars.