Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
June, 2004 Training Your Wine Consultant
Your dealings with a retail wine consultant can grow into one of the most fulfilling, rewarding - and expensive - relationships of your life. There's the initial courtship. ("How may I help you?"), followed by an extended period of getting to know each other. ("That one may be a little too oaky for your tastes.") There may even be rough spots along the way. ("Puligny-Montrachet does NOT rhyme with K-J!") But with perseverance, the relationship can blossom into something truly special. ("I've just received my allocation of Colgin, and I'm giving you first dibs!")
But how should you choose a wine consultant? Here are some guidelines:
Does the consultant try to save you money? Ask your prospective consultant to recommend a wine to take to a dinner party, either to drink with dinner or as a gift for the host and hostess. The implication is that you want something special. The consultant should ask how much you want to spend; say something ambiguous like "up to $15." Does he or she make a beeline for $14.99, or even higher? Bad sign, especially if the consultant makes no effort to learn your tastes, or your host's.
Does the consultant remember you? Here's where the relationship is more akin to training a puppy. Be sure to tell the consultant what you thought of his or her prior recommendations; that way, he or she can point you toward or away from similar wines. Don't be embarrassed to say you didn't like a wine - the consultant works for you, after all - but be ready to describe your objections as well as your preferences. This takes repetition: You aren't the consultant's only customer, and your face may be more forgettable than you realize. If after several visits you still get a blank stare, or the consultant has recommended more duds than winners, move on.
Is the store's layout wine friendly? Remember, wines don't like heat. While it is too expensive for stores to maintain the proper cellar temperature of 54 degrees (more or less), you should feel noticeably cool and the bottles should feel cool to your touch. Wines don't like light, either. Sunlight and fluorescent light can penetrate bottles and damage the wine. So be wary of warehouse stores and window displays, especially if the vintage dates - or the dust - suggest the bottles may have been there a long time. Ideally, bottles should be stored on their sides or upside down (in boxes or through holes in the shelves) to keep the corks from drying out. This is really only a danger with older vintages that may have been in the store awhile, but proper shelf storage is a classy touch and a sign of a store that cares about its product.
Does the consultant know the wines? Consultants who take pride in their jobs will have tasted most if not all wines in the store. Some will have written logs of their tasting notes handy for customers to browse. Avoid stores where "How's this?" is answered with, "Parker gave it 85 points!" Those are salespeople, not consultants. Depending on price, that sort of store may be a good place to buy wines you already know, but not a good place to learn about new wines.
Finally, don't blindly trust those little "shelf talker" cards draped around a bottle that tout a high point score from some magazine or other, or even a favorable review by some two-bit wine writer. They are no guarantee that the wine is right for your table tonight. (Wine Writer Frustration Alert: No One Has Ever Made Shelf Talkers From WineLine. Harumph.) The only opinion that really matters is yours. Frequently, the quoted rating doesn't even match the vintage on the shelves because lemmings came and bought all the wine as soon as the high score was published. You don't want to be a lemming. You want to find wines that suit your taste and wallet while demonstrating your flair and style.
Congratulations are in order for Ann Cashion, of Washington's Cashion's Eat Place and Johnny's Half Shell, who I told you about earlier this year in WineLine #37, for being named Best Chef Mid-Atlantic at the 2004 James Beard Association Awards. Yay! Even run-on sentences are in order ...
Shameless Self-Promotion Alert: Last month I told you about Iron Bridge Wine Company, a sleek-chic restaurant/wine shop/wine bar in Columbia, Md. My (shorter) writeup of Iron Bridge is in the July issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine in a feature called "Recommended Without Reservations," about unheralded wine-friendly restaurants across the nation. There's even a photo of a cute blonde obviously having a good time and a good wine at Iron Bridge. So there. So go.
Wine of the Month:
Dry Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc 2003, Clarksburg. ($10) Clarksburg, a little-known California appellation just south of Sacramento, takes tenacious pride in its Chenin Blanc, one of the "forgotten varietals" that never gets the appreciation it deserves. Dry Creek Vineyards from Sonoma County is consistently one of the top producers of Chenin from Clarksburg, and the 2003 is better than ever. Aromas of honeydew and cantaloupe are backed up by tropical flavors such as passion fruit and a perfect balance of acidity and residual sugar. If all were right with the world, this would make Chenin Blanc a trendy varietal. But then we'd have to pay more for it.
Recommended for: Chinese and Thai dishes, seafood, shrimp on the bar-b.
© 2004 by Dave McIntyre
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.