Greetings and salutations! So you are jumping into the world of fine wines…or maybe just sticking a toe in for now. When your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth began pursuing the passion that is wine, I recall like it was yesterday how thoroughly intimidated I was the first time a waiter or sommelier handed me a hefty wine list with all eyes at the table watching. Although I have no objective proof of this theory, I suspect that most people have experienced the same sweaty-palm reaction. If you have, then this month’s Chapter is for you, as we will discuss some general rules and helpful hints of how to navigate your way through the most detailed of wine lists and unleash that latent inner wine sleuth!
First, proper navigation of a detailed wine list requires a modicum of confidence. It is worth noting that with very few exceptions no one in your dinner party expects you to know everything about wine, but rather they are looking to you for counsel to make an educated choice to complement their dinner choices. Are your companions fans of white wines, red wines, blushes or sparklers? What are they ordering for their entrée? Are they domestic or Old World fans? Are they wine enthusiasts or simply consumers of the grape? Bottle or wines by the glass? Are they, to borrow a great term from my friend Don, a bunch of locusts? What is a reasonable wine budget for your merry party? Just a simple knowledge of these issues can dramatically simplify your choices and afford a wine sleuth the luxury of eliminating extraneous choices like a panicking student gets rid of obviously wrong answers on the SAT exam.
Say your crew has opted for seafood and all love domestic Chardonnays. In that case, you are wasting your (and your companions’) time and bordering on becoming a wine geek of epic proportions if you peruse any page other than the White wines from the US of A. In that situation, if you know about a specific value wine label or pleasing appellation on the list then your answer can be quite simple–order a bottle of that reasonably priced classic oaked Chardonnay from Carneros or Russian River and close the wine list. By so choosing, you have left your budget room to order another bottle if the conversation and mood of the table is suitable. There is no need to order the most expensive wine on the list unless (a) everyone at the table loves that wine and will settle only for that label (this is highly doubtful), (b) you are in full panic and wish to impress everyone based solely on the price of the wine (in which case your crew has chosen the wrong wine representative), (c) the establishment’s idea of fine wine is Two Buck Chuck (bless yourself at the discovery of this news flash) or (d) you have a credit card that you feel compelled to max out (in which case, please give me a call so I can splurge with you!).
If the ordering choice isn’t so simple, then a bit more vetting is called for. A clever wine sleuth might pair a spicy Zinfandel with BBQ or fajitas, for example, or a crisp, smooth Riesling or Gruner Veltliner with spicy Thai or other Oriental dishes. With chicken or fatty fish such as salmon, a Pinot Noir or a Barolo might be just the ticket. A thick rib-eye steak can be properly paired with a domestic Cab Sav, an earthy Bordeaux, a hearty Malbec or even an inky Petite Sirah. If there is one white wine fan at the table and 3 red lovers, then one might suggest a medium-priced white wine by the glass for him or her and value bottle of red for the table. So rule numero uno is to KNOW THY DINNER MATES.
Assuming your group decides not to simply order wines by the glass, typically there are much more interesting and sophisticated choice ordering by the bottle, the split or even the magnum. Having said that, a quality restaurant that has a liberal group of choices for wines by the glass is a great discovery, indeed! Bookmark that bad boy! The typical .750 liter bottle will pour six generous glasses. Accordingly, the “split” or .375 liter bottle will pour three and the 1.5 liter magnum will pour twelve. Assuming some responsible party has Uber on speed dial or volunteers to be the designated driver, then one may order wine based upon anticipated consumption of the table with relative impunity. Many restaurants offer only .750’s and wine by the glass, further simplifying the options.
A truly useful tip learned from a wine distributor friend of mine is to look for value wines in the next least expensive wine in any given category. After learning that little tidbit, I habitually look for those often-overlooked jewels just above the most modestly priced wines. A wine sleuth will certainly not find a brand name in this slot, but he or she may well find a quality new label or a relatively unknown label that will knock your socks off! While so choosing will avoid choosing the cheapest wine on the list, in most cases your dinner mates will appreciate your thoughtful stewardship with their wine budget. Accordingly, rule numero dos is DON’T BE AFRAID TO MAKE AN EDUCATED GUESS BASED UPON ESTIMATED CONSUMPTION.
Finally, I recommend that you continue to expand your wine horizons–that is truly one of the best things about becoming a wine sleuth. Try new varietals and familiarize yourself with suitable pairings and optimum regions of those grapes. A simple example is that my palate absolutely loves the “Rutherford Dust” finish of the Cabs from the Napa Valley appellation of Rutherford. When one of my favorite labels is unavailable but another Rutherford wine is, I order with some degree of confidence that the flavor profile I enjoy will be present in the unknown but local wine. Same concept with the scrumptious but relatively inexpensive white Bordeaux wines–virtually all of these labels are primarily Sauvignon Blanc with a small dollop of Semillon, a delightful combination. Even if your tastes differ from those of your companions a bit, the odds of finding a crowd-pleasing wine increase geometrically with your homework done before ordering! So rule numero tres is to GO WITH A LABEL OR AT LEAST A REGION WITH WHICH YOU ARE FAMILIAR.
With those tips for your consideration, here are this month’s three Value Wines and Worth a Splurge Wine!
Value Wine No. 1: Bodega Montecillo Rioja Reserva 2008
One of the questions that I am often asked by lovers of grilled meats and steaks is what are the best wines to pair with their favorite cuts. In the US, frequently the automatic inclination is a fine Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or a grand cru French Bordeaux, neither of which is a bad option. However, a wine sleuth that wishes to pair wine with his or her favorite steak at a good steakhouse but is tired of paying exorbitant markups might consider less pricey but quality options. Last night, I ventured off the obvious path and paired a terrific Spanish Rioja with a world-class aged bone-in filet and was blown away. That particular wine was the Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Reserva 2008. What is even better news is that this balanced, nuanced Spaniard retails for $16, meaning that even in a typical restaurant with a 200-250% markup from retail, the Montecillo Rioja Reserva will not cause your Amex to spontaneously combust at the cashier! As discussed earlier in Chapter 5, the Rioja Reserva designation by law requires a minimum of 1 year aging in oak casks and a total of 3 years of aging. Accordingly, you will always get a wine properly aged by the vintner with the Rioja Reserva designation. The Montecillo Rioja Reserva 2008 has a flavor profile of dark cherries and raspberries on the nose with touches of vanilla, earth and leather mid-palate, followed by a lingering, satisfying finish that will easily stand up to a seared filet. Low in alcohol at 13.5% compared to most domestic Cab Savs, the Rioja has fine tannins that are silky and elegant. No less an expert than Robert Parker of Wine Advocate awarded an impressive 91 rating to the Montecillo Rioja Reserva 2008. Whether you enjoy this Rioja at home or with your favorite steak dining out, this Spaniard is well worth a try!
Value Wine No. 2: Bogle Essential Red 2012
Still looking for a great House Red for a modest hit to your wallet? Does your Wine Bargain Sleuth have a deal for you! How modest a hit? Funny you should ask, a mere $12 a bottle before any case or special discount. That is value, my friends. But how good can it be at that modest price point? How does a solid 91 rating and a number 3 position on the Top 100 Best Buys as determined by Wine Enthusiast magazine sound? The Bogle Essential Red 2012 is a big, hearty red wine that is terrific as a cocktail wine and possibly even better as pairing wine with hearty, spicy foods. The Bogle Essential Red 2012 is a delicious blend of old vine Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sav and Petite Sirah that will have you reaching for another bottle after the last glass is dispensed. The 2012 Bogle blend has a flavor profile of dark berries, vanilla, spice and tobacco. This wine is nicely balanced and has an uncommon smoothness for a Big Red at this price point. Bogle does a remarkable job of producing consistently high quality wines for a modest asking price. In fact, we recommended the 2010 Bogle Essential Red in past Chapters. If anything, the 2012 Bogle Essential Red is better than earlier vintages. Should your taste in red wines run to bold domestic efforts, there is really no reason not to grab a case of this remarkable Value Wine!
Value Wine No. 3: Piper Sonoma Brut Sonoma County Select Cuvee NV
With New Year’s Eve (a/k/a Amateur Night) just passed by, a wine sleuth may still be on the lookout for a reasonably priced, high quality domestic sparkling wine. Here’s a thought for your consideration–shag a couple of bottles of the delicious Piper Sonoma Brut Sonoma County Select Cuvee NV. Reasonably priced at an $18 suggested retail, the Piper Sonoma Brut NV is comfortably priced at $10 or so below fair-to-middling Champagne. This domestic sparkler presents a balanced, appetizing flavor profile of raspberry, appown impressive 88 rating of the Piper Sonoma Brut. When you get right down to it, is there any reason not to have a bottle or two of bubbly at the house for special occasions, or even Sunday brunch? Here’s a great sparkling wine to bring homeles, cinnamon and toasted almonds, with all the bubbles that your nose would care to be tickled by! The Piper Sonoma Brut is widely available for your shopping pleasure. Wine Enthusiast chipped in with its own impressive 88 rating of the Piper Sonoma Brut. When you get right down to it, is there any reason not to have a bottle or two of bubbly at the house for special occasions, or even Sunday brunch? Here’s a great sparkling wine to bring home! It may be time to bubble up, wine sleuths!
Worth a Splurge Wine: Classic Perrier Jouet Brut Champagne NV
While we are on a bubbles roll, there is nothing like the original. A remarkable example from Epernay, France in Champagne is the Perrier Jouet Brut NV. The Perrier Jouet is a Pinot Noir blend that exhibits the classic Champagne characteristics of toast, citrus and a touch of honey with delightful tiny bubbles. Effervescent with a delightfully dry finish, the Perrier sparkler will never disappoint your crowd, whether a holiday party or small gathering with friends. Retailing for approximately $55, the Perrier Jouet Brut NV is certainly not inexpensive, but may be considered a relative bargain in comparison with similar classic Epernay Champagnes. Bubbles this extraordinary were not unnoticed by the professional reviewers–Wine Spectator awarded this wine a very impressive 91 rating.
Thought for the Day: Wine’s Patron Founding Father.
The late, great Thomas Jefferson has no peer when it comes to being the patron saint of wine in the fledgling United States of America. As Emily Bosland writes in Thomas Jefferson: A Free Mind, Jefferson singlehandedly upped America’s wine game, serving as “official wine advisor” to Washington, Madison, and Monroe, and allocating 200 acres of his own estate, Monticello, to viticultural experimentation overseen by the Italian Phillipo Mazzei. As President, he was the first person to stock the White House with wine (and spent a third of his salary on it during his first year), and convinced the Secretary of Treasury to lower the duty on wine to boost its consumption. He is rumored to have consumed a healthy 1,200 bottles between 1822 and 1824 after he left office. Now THAT is commitment, brothers and sisters!
Until next month– Cheers!
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