Monday, May 28, 2007

Becoming a Wine Connoisseur: Part II

Last week I managed to waste an entire column talking about my testicles and trying different wines. And though both are important, this is a wine column and I need to focus on making you a wine connoisseur.

Step 2: Dick and Jane Read About Wine (while Spot gets plastered)

You’ll only get so far by randomly tasting different wines. It really helps if you know something about the wines you’re tasting. That’s where book larnin’ can come in handy. Books are the cheap and easy way of becoming – if not a wine connoisseur – then at least knowledgeable about wine.

But which books? A search for “wine” at turned up 239,546 results. Ouch! That’s a hell of a lot of readin’ before you can get your buzz on. There’s gotta be a way to trim that down a bit.

Probably the best way is to break the books into types. Not every wine book serves the same purpose, and knowing what you’re looking for can really help you out when you stroll into Barnes and Noble. I break wine books into five categories.

Wine Courses

I call these books “courses” because that’s what they often call themselves. They are generally introductory books on wine, covering the basics on how wine is made, where it’s made, what grapes are used, etc. If you know nothing about wine, these books are the place to start.

Wine for Dummies – This is actually a pretty darn good book that breaks down wine into very understandable terms. Unfortunately, you’ll have to hide this under your bed – no true connoisseur would ever be caught dead with “Wine For Dummies”.

Great Wine Made Simple (Andrea Immer Robinson) – I really like Andrea Immer (now Robinson); she keeps things fun and simple, just like the book’s title. She manages to cover a lot of ground while giving you fun hands-on tasting assignments to boot.

Wine Encyclopedias

Once you have a basic handle on the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, you might want to gain more specific knowledge about wines of particular regions. That’s where the wine encyclopedia comes in, generally replete with history, background, types of wines, and examples of specific producers for each wine region in the world.

The Wine Bible (MacNeil) – Probably the single most popular wine book on the market, it combines a bit of the wine primer with the encyclopedia. However, there are no color pictures or maps, so I've never liked it.

The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia – OK, this is the real deal. If you want the lowdown on every winemaking region on the globe, this is the book. Lots of great background info, plus lists of specific recommended producers and lot of color pictures and maps! Overkill for all but the true wine geek.

Wine Guides

The purpose of wine guides is to help you decide which wines are good. They contain lists and lists of wines, with scores and notes and ratings. I generally don’t like wine guides for the simple reason that I can never actually find or buy any of the wines they recommend, and I don’t always share the same taste as the author. Still, people love these books.

Andrea Robinson's 2007 Wine Buying Guide for Everyone – This is about the only wine guide that I consistently like, both because Andrea includes wines that you can find most anywhere and because she’s generally right on for my taste.

Wine Stories

Once you really get hooked into the world of wine, you might want to know the history of the 1976 Paris tasting, or the rise and rise and rise of the world’s most powerful wine critic…but I’m going to leave all that for another day.

Wine and Food

Wine was made to go with food, and there’s a whole art and science to wine and food pairing.

Everyday Dining with Wine (Andrea Immer) – Organized by varietal, this book gives good background info on each grape and tons of tasty recipes to go with each.

What to Drink with What you Eat (Dornenburg and Page) – I love this book. Look up a food and it tells you what drink (wine, beer, cocktail, tea) goes best with it. Look up a wine and it tells you what foods go best with it. Best wine with salmon? Oregon pinot noir. Wow.

Of course, there are 239,539 other books on wine out there that I didn't cover, but hey, I’m pushing my word count as it is.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Becoming a Wine Connoisseur: Part I

People approach me all the time and ask me how to become a wine connoisseur. Well, now, for a limited time only, all of my secrets can be yours for only three payments of $19.95!!

I wish.

Nobody asks me how to become a wine connoisseur, and they certainly don't pay me $60 to learn what little I know. What does happen with way too much frequency is that people say to me, "I'm not a wine connoisseur like you, but I really liked this wine I tasted."

Get a clue, people, I'm no wine connoisseur. Sure, I like wine, and yes, I've learned a little about wine. But I'm far from a "connoisseur." People think I'm an expert because they've convinced themselves that wine is terribly esoteric and requires years of learning from “master sommeliers” to understand. That's the really weird thing about wine: people make it out to be some high mystery, presided over by Masonic priests in white robes, sharing secret handshakes and chanting mumbo jumbo.

Some wines, like Burgundy, are really complicated, and nobody really understands them. But it's not really all that hard to know something about wine. And as long as you know a single thing more than the crapulous cretin next to you, you'll look like an expert. How do you think I've fooled you for this long?

Enough blabbering you say, "here's my $60; make me a wine expert just like you."

Sigh. OK, I'll do it. I'll show you how to know as much about wine as I do.

But first things first. Please make your check out to “Anthony Dunn” and send it to me in care of the Chico Beat.

Step 1: Put down the Thunderbird and step slowly away

In order to learn something about wine, you have to be willing to try different wines. People (even highly trained and knowledgeable wine connoisseurs like myself) get stuck in ruts, drinking the same kind of wine over and over. “I bought a bottle of Gallo merlot and really liked it.” So now all you drink is cheap merlot? I almost guarantee that trying something new is not going to kill you.

In my particular case, when I started writing this column I knew nothing about white wines. To me, tannin equaled testosterone. Real men drank red wine, period. Only women and “girlie men” drank white wine, and I didn't want to be mistaken for either. Unfortunately, I had to face white wines sooner or later in this column, so I put my testicles in a drawer and tried some.

I wish I could say that I started with something manly sounding like Gewürztraminer, which could easily be mistaken for some Nazi secret weapons program, but I think I started with the much more feminine-sounding Riesling. Nonetheless, I discovered that I actually like some white wines, and that white wines will often pair with foods that are impossible to match to a red wine. Riesling, for example, is fantastic with Indian food.

The moral is that you'll never learn anything new if you don't try something new. “But, if I've never tried it, how do I know if it's any good?” Short answer: you don't. That's part of the process. You think that I know beforehand whether every wine I taste is any good? Ha! You gotta kiss a lot of toads in this business to find the princes. That's just a fact of life. And just because I liked it and Robert Parker liked it, that doesn't mean you'll like it. Everybody's tastes are different. You have to be willing to taste some bad wine if you want to taste some really good wine. Get over it.

You'll learn even more if you can taste several wines side-by-side to see how they differ. Even if you can't describe the difference (leave that to us wine connoisseurs, please), you can taste the difference. In the beginning, that's all that matters.

How can you do that without breaking the bank or having a blood alcohol level high enough to kill a mosquito? Monks is one idea. Vino 100 and Creekside Cellars are two others. All do wine tastings or flights.

Another method is to invite like-minded friends over and tell them each to bring a bottle they like. Not only is everyone guaranteed to have at least one wine they like, everyone gets to try something new. Just make sure everyone leaves their pretentiousness at home. I've had $10 bottles of wine that kicked the ass of some $100 bottles, so don't try bringing an expensive bottle in game of one-upmanship. Nobody cares.


Go into your favorite wine shop and randomly pick a bottle off the shelf of something you've never tried before. You might hate it, but you'll learn something.

Next week

Your second check for $19.95 will be due and I'll talk about wine and book larnin'.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Funky Monk-y

I'm pretty lazy. The last time I was at Monks was October, and I've been meaning to do a column on them since. I'm sure they wonder why I've ignored them for so long. Like I said, I'm just lazy.

With a name like “Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro” you'd expect an eclectic looking and hip joint. And though I ceased being a barometer of hipness back around the time The Sex Pistols were big, my guess is that Monks looks fairly hip. But I'm not much into décor. I'm into wine, and that's why I go there.

The last time I was there, I was told that they'd soon be updating and refining their wine list, and the first thing I noticed this time was that they'd refined it to be noticeably shorter than it had been before. My brow creased in an anticipatory frown.

Still, there were many interesting wines on the list (maybe 40 or so) and my partner and I went to town selecting the ones we wanted to taste. One cool thing about Monks is that they offer “flights” (small pours of three different wines of your choice) to maximize your tasting experience. This is a great concept and allows you to taste a wide variety of wines without falling on your face. Being a Thursday, it was red wine night (What? Don't tell me you didn't get the memo.), so we each picked three reds to swirl, sniff and taste.

My frown quickly dissolved into an appreciative smile as I began to work my way through the wines. Overall, these were excellent – really excellent – wines. I was impressed. It's clear that their wine list is much tighter and focused than it used to be. My only complaint is the outrageous shortage of syrahs. Only one? Tsk. Get thee to Domaine de la Terre Rouge!

Fathom, Babcock Vineyards (Santa Barbara)
A Bordeaux-style blend, this wine is built on a strong foundation of solid dark fruit flavors. Yummy, deep and complex, I can't imagine any fan of fruit-driven California cabs not liking this. $10/glass. 4 stars.

Casa Barranca Winery (Ojai)
I'm not sure exactly which wine we had, but I'm guessing it was their merlot-cabernet blend. Medium bodied and somewhat spicy, with nice structure. Again, very solidly fruit-driven, with decent tannins. Overall a very soft, fine wine. $11.50/glass. 4 stars.

Composition, Cloud 9 (California)
Though the Cloud 9 winery is located in the Sierra foothills, this wine tastes like a classic Napa Valley cabernet, with massive dark fruit backed by a level of depth and complexity not found anywhere near your average wine. Big, smooth and classy. This is the good stuff. $14.50/glass. 4.5 stars.

Spellbound Petite Sirah (Napa Valley)
This wine leaps out at you with an intense aroma of prunes. Flavors of plum, prune and raison explode in the dense fruit of this wine. Unfortunately, there's too much fruit, and this wine suffers from a severe lack of complexity. Though interesting on first taste, I tired of it very quickly. The only disappointment of the bunch. $12/glass. 2.25 stars.

Montirius Gigondas (France)
Gigondas is a town in the Rhone Valley of France, and this wine showed it's French heritage by being much less fruity than the California wines. A bit disappointing when first opened, but (typical of French wines), it evolved in the glass into a very refined offering. I'd avoid this for those who love intensely fruity wines, but I ended up being fairly impressed. $9/glass. 3.5 stars.

Rothschild Rouge (Bordeaux, France)
Ah, Bordeaux. Very earthy aromas of soil, forest and dust. On the tongue, complex and earthy with moderate fruit and almost a hint of smoked bacon – unmistakably Bordeaux. Interesting to compare to the Babcock or the Cloud 9. $10.50/glass. 4 stars.

A very impressive effort, but the real story of our evening at Monks was the food. Their variety of small plates presents some surprisingly tasty offerings.

Skip the cheese plate (which is perfectly fine) and go straight for the Pear, Red Onion and Gorgonzola Tart . Wow! What an intense medley of sweet, tart and savory flavors! This is what food should taste like!

If you're still hungry after that, get the Brie en Crouté – yummy, creamy brie baked in a crust with walnuts and a touch of honey. Nice counterpoint of flavors.

If you're in the mood for dessert, the Fried Cheesecake is creamy and dreamy – fried in tasty pastry and topped with blackberry and chocolate sauce – wow! It may sound weird, but it's totally worth a try.

Overall, this was a great and highly recommended experience, and one that I should repeat more often. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly cheap experience. Well, if you're looking for a cheap date, stop at Trader's Joe for a bottle of Two Buck Chuck and a couple of packages of frozen spinach Lasagna. If you want great food and good wine, Monks is the place to go.

Monks ( is located on 2nd Street between Main and Broadway in downtown Chico.