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WineLine No. 4
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
January 18, 2000

Happy New Year! And welcome to issue #4 of Dave McIntyre's WineLine, a free-wheeling discussion of whatever might interest wine lovers. I am happy to report that subscriptions are now at about 340, with many more reading in through Robin Garr's Wine Lover's Page, where back issues are available. If you received this from a praise-worthy friend, you may ensure receipt of future issues by subscribing (free!) at http://lists.lyris.net/wineline. If you know of anyone who might enjoy reading WineLine, please forward it along. As always, you may reach me at mcintyrewineline@yahoo.com.

In this issue:

Cheers!
Dave McIntyre

By mid-January it may be a little late for New Year's Resolutions; most of mine have traditionally been forgotten by now. But this year I have set the following goals as a wine drinker and a wine writer:

Whereas the enjoyment of wine is one of the finer aspects of life, to be enjoyed and shared in its boundless variety for its gifts in digestion, communication ("burp!") and friendship,

Be it Resolved:

I shall try new wines this year. Rather than be wary of unfamiliar labels on retail shelves or restaurant lists, I shall boldly drink where no McIntyre has ... oh you know what I mean. I shall seek out new offerings from my favorite importers and support new labels. I shall allow myself to be seduced by the words, "small producer." I shall splurge occasionally on pricier bottles I've always wanted to try but no one has brought to my dinner parties.

I shall drink more Albariño, Riesling, Soave and Verdicchio. This goes with my resolution to diet better by eating more seafood. Though it sounds blasphemous to wine geeks everywhere, this means staying away from people whose mantra is "good wine is red wine." And it means trying something other than Sauvignon Blanc, as much as I love it.

I shall try to learn to like Chardonnay. Okay, this sounds contradictory to the first two, but life needs its complexities. Besides, there's an extra day this year, so that means at least two more bottles to try ... I've always been part of the "ABC" crowd, except for those occasional bottles that show me what all the fuss is about. Over the holidays, a generous host offered me a contrast of the Long Vineyards 1992 and the Peter Michael "Mon Plaisir" 1996 Chardonnays. Both were wonderful proof that oak can be used judiciously and California Chards can age gracefully. And I've always had a sneaking suspicion that Chardonnay, even from California, is more food-friendly than it is usually given credit for by wine writers trying to make a mark for themselves. Ahem.

In restaurants, when confronted by a lengthy list full of unfamiliar names, I shall not retreat to a known label. Instead, I shall consult the sommelier who compiled the list with the restaurant's cuisine in mind and ask him/her to suggest something new and potentially exciting. This means not being afraid to show unfamiliarity with the wines (a wine geek's supreme fear ...).

In my writing, I shall avoid pretentious language and take aim at the Golden Idols and myths of winedom. Actually, I remind myself of this goal each time I sit down to tap out a WineLine or feature article. Wine writing is meant to make the product of the grape more accessible, but too much of it has the reverse effect by reinforcing the misconception that only a select few can ever fully appreciate it. How many newspaper columnists are so enraptured by their free samples that they write mostly about $20 and up wines? How many times have you seen a columnist write, "This is a tough job, but someone has to do it, ha ha ha."? (It doesn't have to be you, buddy.) Or how often have you read about a wonderful boutique wine that you can't possibly buy for yourself, but the columnist is on the mailing list or kissed up to the winemaker and wants you to know how privileged he is? Is that helpful?

Not writing a lot of tasting notes makes it easier for me to avoid some of the silly descriptors that have become common. But I still resolve to avoid phrases such as "gobs of fruit," "lashings of oak," "prodigious," and my personal fave, "vinous." Anyone who catches me on these, please be merciless!

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Here's a fun read for food-loving web surfers (and this includes readers of WineLine, since it's only available through cyberspace): The Washington Post's long-serving and long-suffering restaurant reviewer, Phyllis Richman, conducts a live chat each Thursday noon on Washingtonpost.com. As a Sidewalk veteran, I'm not particularly a fan of that website, and they celebrated Sidewalk's demise by reorganizing their own features and making them even harder to find. But Richman's chat is worth seeking out (oh heck, this URL will at least get you to her archive: washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/food/richman.htm.)

These are fun reads not just for DC area residents or visitors, but for anyone interested in the restaurant biz. Many of the questions Richman fields come from irate diners who are convinced they are getting ripped off and frustrated vegetarians who are tired of eating side dishes. Richman often takes the restaurants' side, but will also offer advice for diners who justly feel aggrieved. And she fearlessly prints the occasional blast of vitriol denouncing her for having the nerve to tell readers not to waste their money on some over-hyped restaurant. A sense of humor is always helpful.

A case in point about the irate diners: One wag in a recent chat complained with sincere astonishment about the lousy service he received at a busy DC restaurant. Seems this poor sap actually had to wave his empty wineglass at the waiter across the room in order to get a refill.

Is anyone else shedding a tear?

Now, granted that some restaurants do place the wine bucket out of a diner's sight and reach (boo!), but in the vast majority of establishments, this guy's bottle would be on or beside his table, within easy grasp. Grow up, man! Didn't your mother ever teach you to take care of yourself? (I raised this issue privately with Richman, and she agreed - albeit with a bit more politesse - in her most recent chat.)

True, when we dine out we like to have everything cared for, and most people do not understand or care about the economics of the restaurant biz. We're paying for service; if we wanted to pour our own wine, we'd have stayed at home.

This begs the question: Are we paying to get pampered? (Get a massage, I say.) Or are we paying for a total restaurant experience, and isn't that experience diminished by the tensions and the negative expectations ("This guy's gonna see me for a rube and push a more expensive wine") we should have left at the coat check?

Now, waiters are my kind of people: They bring me food and wine. But personally, I prefer them to leave their mitts off my wine bottle. I find "service" overly intrusive when someone stops to refill each glass at the table after every sip. In a large group, especially when we're splitting the bill, this rewards gulpers and encourages over-consumption, something restaurants should be wary of in this litigious age. The staff may or may not be subtly creating the need for another bottle purchase. But they are giving the impression that the diners are being rushed.

Once recently I gave up trying to pour my own wine. I'd convinced our waiter that we wouldn't think ill of him, but then other waiters, trained to get nervous at the sight of a half-empty wine glass, came by one after the other to pour refills - nearly to the brim. (Don't get me started!) Even the busboy wanted in on the act, but I snatched the bottle away from him at the first twitch of his wrist.

The best waiters can "read" their audience and react accordingly. In top-flight restaurants, this is rarely a problem. But wine lovers who agree with me will often have to introduce ourselves, because we are in the minority. And if you're up for some sport, try taking control of your wine's temperature! It can be great fun to remove your white from the ice bucket and keep the waiter from dipping it back in; but even more confounding for most wait staff is the odd diner who requests an ice bucket for a red wine delivered alla cucina instead of alla cantina. If life gives you lemons ...

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"I Feast on Wine and Bread - and Feasts They Are"

—-Michelangelo

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DC area readers, mark your calendars: On Wednesday, January 26, Borders Books and Music at 18th and L Streets NW presents a free program, "Beneath the Toque, Behind the Front Desk and at the Table: Perspectives on Restaurant Dining." Co-sponsored by the Zagat people, this panel discussion features Olga Boikess, the Washington/Baltimore Zagat editor; Susan McCreight Lindeborg, former chef of Morrison-Clark Inn; and Thomas Herink, manager of McCormick & Schmick's. More perspectives on the city's dining scene will be offered, as well as "insider tips" on how not to get ripped off by securing reservations, getting the best tables and intimidating your waiter instead of vice versa. (Well, OK, that last part was my interpretation ...)

Washington is also hitting the big time with our first-ever Washington Wine Expo on February 12-13 at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building. This is an adjunct to the annual Boston Wine Expo, held the previous weekend, so we're getting about 600 wineries from around the world while their reps are stranded on the East Coast. This event is co-sponsored by the Virginia Wine Marketing Office and WineToday.com, an absolutely fabulous website (published by The New York Times) that every wine lover should bookmark, and NOT JUST BECAUSE I OCCASSIONALLY WRITE FOR THEM! (Look for my piece on Washington's best restaurant wine lists in the days leading up to the expo ...) For tickets, check out www.wine-expos.com.

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Tastings: Zinfandel lovers are enamored of their "Old Vines." But old vines die off, too. So Dry Creek Vineyard, one of Sonoma County's Zinfandel champions, has developed "Heritage Clone" in anticipation that they might not be able to continue their much-loved Old Vines cuvée much longer. The clone is developed from budwood taken from a pre-Prohibition era vineyard, with the goal of preserving the "classic" characteristics of the grape. The 1997 (about $15) is the debut release, and it shows promise. There is some "young vines" flavor in a slight reediness mid-palate, but the true Zinfandel characteristics show through. Keep buying the Old Vines by the case while it lasts (I'm clinging to my last bottle of the 1992), but keep the Heritage Clone in mind as the vines gain maturity. And kudos to Dry Creek for thinking ahead! (PS - their Fumé Blanc and Chardonnay are not exactly shabby, either ...)

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