Monday, August 27, 2007

Cheeseburger, Fries and a Glass of Wine

Like any real guy, when left to my own devices, about the best I can do in the kitchen is heat a bowl of chili. But with my “significant other” (I love that term only because I hate it so much) gone two evenings a week, chili is starting to get pretty boring. So tonight I decided to splurge and snuck out to Jack In The Box for a nice, comforting, heart-clogging meal. Ah…the pleasures of cholesterol.

There's nothing quite like a greasy, lukewarm fast food meal, but the really tough question for this winoholic was what wine to pair with a burger and fries. Truly, this is one of the weightiest questions of our times. Forget your war in Iraq, your attorney firings, and your violations of fundamental Constitutional rights. Getting the perfect wine and burger match is what's really important.

And it's a head scratcher, too. French fries are going to be a tough match, given the huge dripping quantities of deeply soaked-in grease. And the burger isn't necessarily a slam-dunk either. Sure there's a huge slab of ground up dead bovine, but what about the lettuce, tomato and pickles? This wouldn't be any easy job for even the most knowledgeable sommelier.

There was only one way to handle this conundrum…buy a bunch of different wines and try them all. Hey, hey, hey! I'm getting' blotto tonight!

So, before I visited the drive through of my old alma mater (yep, my first job was swabbing floors at good ole Jack's), I stopped by Cost Plus to pick up three potential matches: a chardonnay, a zinfandel and a cabernet sauvignon. At Jack's, I scored a gen-u-wine sirloin burger with fries and a diet coke. Then I headed home for gustatory feast.

Sebastiani 2004 Sonoma County Chardonnay
I wasn't expecting much from this match. Burger and fries seems pretty red wine to me, but I figured there were probably a few idiots out there who might try a white wine. This was a very light and thin chard, with a flinty, mineral nose and weak fruit. With the fries, it was overpowered by the grease, though the fries did bring out a bit of melon-like fruit. With the burger, the flavors of the tomato and lettuce really came out, but the flavor of the wine itself disappeared under an onslaught of 100% pure sirloin beef (and whatever ghastly fillers go into a fast food burger). Overall, though, the pairing was better than expected. Match: 2.5 out of 5. $9.99.

Bogle 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel
Some old guy was going on and on about how great a wine this was while I was at Cost Plus. I had some very grave doubts about his sanity and sobriety at the time, but decided to give it a try anyway. Dark and rich, this wine is a Hiroshima fruit bomb, with metric tons of blackberry and raspberry fruit. Not a good match with the fries, as they brought out an awkward tart acidity in the wine, and the delicate French fry taste got lost in the shuffle. It was a better match with the burger, but the huge insistent fruit overpowered even the slab of 100% pure dead cow with wave after wave of juicy fruity flavors. I rate it a solid “nah”. Match: 2.0 out of 5. $8.99.

Rodney Strong 2004 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a surprisingly Bordeaux style cab, with strong notes of earth, dust and green pepper on the nose. Dark, intense fruit on the tongue, but a touch overripe. Overall, a powerful, intense wine, with strong but not overdone tannins. The fries brought out the earthiness in the wine, while the grease tamed the tannins. Still, my mouth was left with a really dry feeling after eating the fries. With the burger, this was a much better pairing. The green fruit flavors in the wine accentuated the lettuce and tomato, while the cholesterol in the meat moderated the tannins. But overall, this wine had more even more testosterone than the burger and tended to overwhelm it. Match: 3.0 out of 5. $12.99

2007 Diet Coke
Light and sweet with a bright and noticeable frizzante. Flavors hit with a strong whammy and then pass quickly, leaving a clean, refreshed palate. This drink was very similar with both the fries and the burger, bringing a burst of flavor and sweetness that quickly disappeared, leaving the pure flavors of fried potatoes, grease, meat and secret sauce behind. Nearly ideal. Match: 4.25 out of 5. $0.99.

This little foray into wine and food pairing set me back almost $40, and the conclusion is that a 99-cent coke is a better match with a burger than a decent cabernet? Damn. I must be some kind of sucka.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Pattern Emerges

Last week I went to Grocery Outlet looking to score some bargain wine gems, but not with too much success. Still, it’s a noble concept, and one worth pursuing (particularly if you’re poor like me). So, this week I’m still hot on the trail of great (or at least drinkable) wine for under $5 a bottle. Next on my wine bargain radar was Big Lots.

Why Big Lots? Well, I actually heard a story about someone who went to Big Lots regularly, bought a bottle of everything that looked interesting, popped them all in the parking lot to give them a taste and then went back and cleaned out the store of whatever they liked.

Sounded like a sound strategy, so off I went.

I picked out four promising-looking subjects, headed to the parking lot, hopped into the back of my truck, and had an impromptu tasting party.

Jewel 2004 Sauvignon Blanc North Coast
Remember those gooey orange peanut-shaped candies you has as a kid? I used to love those things. Stick some of those in the freezer for six months so they get a nice freezer burn and you have the exact aroma of this wine. On the tongue…well, I can’t describe it, but there’s something weirdly wrong with this wine. Incredibly tart, sour finish. Borderline undrinkable. Retch. 0.5 stars. $4.00.

Chateau St. Michelle 2004 Gew├╝rztraminer Columbia Valley
Pale, grassy aroma with a touch of lemon and refrigerator funk. Hmm. Not actually bad, but not promising. On the tongue it showed just a hint of frizzante ("fizz" to the commoner) and the slightest hint of sweetness. Pretty potent tartness though, but that fades after the first few sips. Flinty, minerally flavors, but not much fruit. Not something to be sipped alone, but I bet it’s actually pretty good with spicy Asian food. 2.5 stars. $5.00.

Lazy Lizard 2003 Shiraz Vin de Pays d’Oc, Lnagedoc
Okay, first of all, I have a real problem with a French wine using the Australian spelling of “syrah”. Syrah and shiraz are the same thing, but why on earth would a French wine (syrah comes from France) call syrah “shiraz”? Maybe because this wine is about as far from a French syrah as Sydney is from Paris? This wine was vile. Incredibly sour smelling, with a huge tsunami of dust on the nose. Hints of candle wax didn’t improve it one bit. I was actually afraid to taste it, and for good reason. Sour and off-balance, with a bitter finish. No fruit flavors to speak of. Bad, bad, bad, bad. –1 star. $3.00 that I’ll never ever see again.

Covey Run 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
I don’t know why I keep giving Covey Run wines a chance. Maybe it’s because I once had a decent $6 bottle of their Riesling. Anyway, this wine was fairly promising on the nose, with classic dark fruit cab aromas. A little weak, but they were definitely there. On the tongue, this wine had expired. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t anything. Whatever flavors it once had were long gone. I gave it a decent burial. 1.5 stars. $1.50 for 375ml.

Okay, I’m beginning to see a pattern here. This cheap wine gig isn’t turning out to be the “voyage of discovery” that I thought it might be. Instead, I’m mostly just awash in bilge water. Sure, there are a few diamonds (well, maybe zirconiums) out there, but you gotta kiss a hell of a lot of frogs to find them.

And it ain’t quite the bargain I’d hoped for. Sure, I only spent $14 on four bottles. But that was $14 bucks (literally) down the drain. I know for a fact that I would have been happier spending that $14 on one decent bottle of wine than on four bottles of swill.

Sorry kids, but “bargain” wines aren’t generally much of a bargain. Big surprise, I know. C’est la vie.

Monday, August 06, 2007

It's Cheap for a Reason

To hell with your fancy schmancy Frenchie Bordeaux, I say! Let's have wine for the plebeians! Wine for the unwashed masses! Power to the people. Right on! Too long have we suffered under the oppression of rich, cultured wine makers foisting their over-priced grape juice on gullible wine drinkers incapable of telling the difference between Chateau Latour and Turning Leaf. Too long have we paid through the nose for a decent glass of vino. No more I say! No more! It's time for a revolution in wine!

Ooo…I like that. “It's time for a revolution in wine.”® That's my new motto.

Actually, my new motto should be, “Crap! It's Monday night and I have to write another damn wine column! Man, I'm goin' broke.”

Wine is expensive stuff. If I tasted three $20 bottles of wine every week for this column, I'd be homeless in a minute. And let's get real here; how many of you have ever bought a bottle that I recommended, much less a $20 bottle I recommended? I thought so.

I don't mean to slum it intentionally, but given the combination of the cost of decent wine and the Beat's audience (no offense intended to anyone), popping a Chateau Lafite Rothschild for this column is probably a waste of time.

And anyway, I kind of enjoy searching for diamonds in the dumpster. OK, maybe that's not the best metaphor, but if I can find a decent pinot noir for under $5, I'm all for it (good luck with that, by the way).

I already reviewed Two Buck Chuck, so who could possibly be next? Well, I got a hot tip from a hip tipster that Grocery Outlet was the happening place to score some hot wine deals. With the motto “Bargains Only!” I knew I was on the right track before I even entered the store.

As soon as you enter the store you are overwhelmed by a wall o' wine. I almost peed myself in anticipation of the "bargains" to come. In fact, there were too many great “bargains” to choose from, so I limited myself to four.

Evans-Tate 2003 Margaret River

A typically Aussie blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, this wine promised a lot for two bucks. And boy did it deliver! First hit on the nose: cork taint. Barf-o-rama! There's nothing worse than a corked wine. What's “cork taint” you ask? A corked wine has been tainted by a nasty chemical (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, for you smarty pants out there) that gives wine a characteristic smell and flavor of wet cardboard or moldy basement. I think I might be getting a clue to why it's only $1.99. Bottom line: wine this bad for two bucks is a waste of two bucks. 0 stars.

Fresno State 2004 Grenache

I knew I had to have this as soon as I saw it. Fresno State is bottling and selling their own wine? Cool! Chico State could learn a lot from their example. Chico State could start a brewery program (it's a natural!) and name their different beers after University presidents. I'm sure the “Zingg Pale Ale” would be very popular. Not sure about the “Esteban Lager” though.

Back to the wine. It sucks. Plain and simple. It's super light in color with the ever so appealing aroma of pencil shavings and cough syrup. Flavor-wise, the fruit was very over-ripe and the finish had a real cough-syrupy bitterness. See what happens when you let students make things? $3.99. 0.5 stars.

Covey Run 2004 Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Covey Run is a big producer of occasionally decent wines from Washington. I had high hopes for this one. On the nose an explosion of muskmelon, apricot and truckloads of Papaya. Wow! If it tasted anything like this, it would be a steal. Sadly, it didn't. Typically light and grassy for a sauvignon blanc, the tons of fruit vanished on the tongue, leaving a hollow, slightly thin wine with a tart, unbalanced finish. Disappointing, and not as good as the Two Buck Chuck sauvignon blanc. $1.49. 2 stars.

Lussac 2003 Saint-Emilion

Saint Emilion is one of the major wine regions in Bordeaux. Lussac Saint-Emilion is a lesser known wine region just north of Saint-Emilion proper. Since this bottle lacks a Chateau or Domaine name, I'm assuming that this represents leftover grapes bottled by some wine merchant trying to unload the wine for cheap.

Typically Bordeaux on the nose: earthy, with notes mushroom and cellar. Typically Bordeaux on the tongue as well, with good structure but not much fruit. My only complaint is that it has somewhat strong and bitter tannins on the finish. However, I think with a couple of years cellaring, this will be a pretty decent wine. Not for fruit lovers, but if you like Bordeaux on a budget, this wine is for you. $3.99. 3 stars.

Okay, so we didn't find too many "bargains" at Grocery Outlet, but for 4 bottles under $12, at least I didn't break the bank. And word on the street has it that Big Lots is the next big cheap wine hot spot. As always, I'll be hot on the case.