Exploring new wines is tons of fun - even when your finances suddenly change and you must revisit the bargain shelves you thought you'd left behind. And no, I'm not talking about the implosion of the Nasdaq Composite ... in this issue of Dave McIntyre's WineLine.
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Shrinking the envelope
My wine epiphany came over a glass of Silver Oak cabernet. It was my first trip to California, and friends had arranged a few winery stops in Napa. The large glass was impressive; compared to the smaller tulips at other wineries, it conveyed outsized pride in the wine and promised a thrill even before the sample was poured. That we had to make an appointment was intimidating; we'd jettisoned the Inglenook tour to get there on time, and there was only one other couple in our intimate group. And it was both impressive and intimidating that their cheapest wine cost a whopping $26 a bottle.
One sniff and my wife and I exchanged our most meaningful glance since our first date. One sip and we knew we'd never go back to the Kroger Cost Cutter jugs that fueled our way through school when we wanted something classier than beer.
We came home with resources depleted but palates piqued and commenced exploring the D.C. area's gratifyingly robust wine market. Our sights were set quite a bit lower than Silver Oak, of course, but we were still able to find some values. There was a nice $8 charbono from the lamented Inglenook and a Sonoma County sauvignon blanc from a label long forgotten. Merlot had not yet become a fad and some good ones were still to be had under $10. And we discovered we didn't really like chardonnay. But we loved zinfandel and quickly learned the proper haughty way to sniff at anyone who thought it was a white grape.
Spending more than $10 on a bottle was an extravagance for us. This was due to finances, but we were intimidated as well by the plethora of grapes, places and names on wine labels. As we tasted more and earned more, we gradually "pushed the envelope" of average cost per bottle. Soon it was not uncommon for our average dinner wine to top $10, even push $15. We'd pooh-pooh inexpensive wines as "simple," always looking for excitement in the glass. Once in a while, Lily would pull an expensive bottle off the shelf and say, "I read somewhere that this is really good." Never one to doubt her wisdom, I'd put it in the shopping cart. Long live wine writers!
As "DINKS," we had the luxury of improving our standard of living in wine as well as bank accounts and living arrangements. We never kept pace with Silver Oak, though - current releases of their "cheapest," the Alexander Valley, run at least $65.
Then my wife went and got pregnant. (Dave's initial reaction: "How the hell'd that happen?" )
Suddenly, our credit card bills changed dramatically. Once filled with line items from "So-and-So Wine & Liquor" and "Such-and-Such Spirit and Wine," they were now bulging with charges from "Great Beginnings" and "Buy Buy Baby!" Lily actually lost her taste for wine, to all our friends' amazement. When I spoke of visiting wine stores, she'd practice her parenting skills by saying, "No." I began drinking tired old bottles from our early collection to wash down tired old meats we pulled from the back of the freezer. (Some gems, however: Anyone holding Peter Lehmann 1993 Shiraz, Wow!).
And those under-$10 bottles looked ever more attractive when I did get to stores. To my delight, I found some that were attractive in the glass, too. The MasCarlot 1998 Costieres de Nimes Cuvee Tradition from Robert Kacher Selections clocks in right around $9 and helps explain why the vintage is hailed as one of the best in Southern France. Likewise the Chateau d'Oupia 1998 Minervois ($9) from Louis/Dressner Selections and the Domaine des Romarins 1998 Cotes du Rhone ($10) imported by Pivotal in North Hollywood. Can't say I tasted any rosemary in there, but it was delish.
Despite the 1990s inflation apparent to winelovers (Greenspan must drink beer), California chimes in with a few bargains as well. Hangtown Red Lot 24 from Boeger winery has a new gussied-up label (too many people apparently complained about the noose), but it still offers plenty of pioneer spirit and simple pleasure at $9, as does Nevada City Winery's Rough and Ready Red at $8. These non-vintage, guess-the-grapes blends are the sort of "Dago Reds" that Californians of a certain age used to buy for $3 a gallon jug while exploring what were then back roads in wine country. Take my word for it, you don't want to hear those stories more than twice.
So here's to baby girls and inexpensive wines - and to a wonderful summer for wine lovers and WineLine readers everywhere!
Copyright 2000 by Dave McIntyre
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