August 31, 2006


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Got milk?

Hanging out wines
From the symphonies of cabs to the simple Rioja
By Tim Protzman

One Christmas Eve, 20 years ago, we went to an old greystone Episcopal Church.

It had been built by industrialists — the “best families in town.” The church was like an old European cathedral and the service was very elaborate. They had incense and gorgeous arrangements. The choir was in white and red. At the end of each pew there were tall candle holders adorned with pine boughs and slender white tapers. There was a processional entrance with the choir, the pastor, rector, choir and altar boys. At the rear of the procession people in burlap costumes portrayed shepherds and led dogs, little lambs and even an alpaca. The music was solemn and grand and included Handel and Bach. It was the most beautiful church service I ever attended. I, who was one of the generation that grew up listening to folk, rock, glitter rock, rock opera and jazz, found this spectacle wonderful. But things change.

The next time I attended their Christmas Eve service I had a six-month-old son. He was vocal and fidgety. I missed most of the service because I took him into the function room, so he wouldn’t disturb the service. It was there, in that room that was filled with heavy furniture, that I had my only encounter with the supernatural.

I had the baby on the floor so he could play on the carpet. He was quietly cooing and babbling, doing that crawly, draggy thing babies do just before they start to crawl properly. We could hear the big pipe organ, but it was muffled. Then I heard an unearthly groan. I was sure it was a ghost. But like the people in horror movies I didn’t grab my son and leave. I, like the stars of Last House on the Left, stuck around. If there had been a cellar I would have been tempted to head down there. I wasn’t that I wasn’t scared; it was just the sense of curiosity. I looked around the room and there was no one. I checked the closets. Nobody. Maybe I just imagined it? I took my son back to the sanctuary for another small part of the service, before he got antsy again. We left and returned several times.

On my last visit to the “haunted” function room I was startled by a slightly disheveled woman who popped up from a long leather sofa covered with winter coats. She probably had a bit too much to drink and was sleeping it off on the sofa. My ghost mystery was solved. It wasn’t a spectral wraith, just a bar fly.

I went back to that church on Christmas Eve, many years later. The music seemed loud and overblown. The incense was slightly stinky. One of the animals crapped on the polished fieldstone floor. It hadn’t lived up to my earlier memories. But, it was exactly the same service I’d been to before. It was then that I realized I had changed.

When I first got serious about wine I drank big wines. Weighty Californian cabernet sauvignons, intense and brooding Paulliacs and creamy, butter churned chardonnays. Then I moved south. To Africa, Australia and the Rhone Valley. Here were the incense-scented syrahs, with their deep brandied plum flavors and tangy cinnamon finish. But lately my tastes have changed again. No longer am I held in thrall to the big Wagnerian symphony wines. Today I prefer a gentle rondeau of flute and drum.

This focus on wines that whisper rather than shout probably started last summer when I was lucky enough to get invited to private vineyard on Long Island. A work friend’s grandparents had a few acres of vines. They’d made a fortune in plumbing contracting and had settled on a few acres in the little town of Wading River. It wasn’t the North Folk, it wasn’t the Hamptons, it wasn’t Montauk and it wasn’t the urban sprawl of Floral Park.

They had several arbors and about a quarter acre of vines. The grandfather, a robust man in his early 70s, made his own white and red wines. He used a blend of native grapes and at harvest time he bought a quarter ton of merlot grapes from one of the North Folk vineyards. The wine was soft, watery and one-dimensional. But it had a character. It had a great bouquet of grape, peach and plum. And he served it in recycled screw-top jugs that he’d sealed with paraffin, just like how my grandmother made her homemade jams.

We sat under the arbor, planted more for shade than grapes, and ate crackers and fruit. We dipped the crackers into the wine. The same with the fruit. The wine wasn’t the focus and neither was the fruit. It was the companionship, the act of sitting with friends on a warm summer day as the sun was setting and talking and enjoying. Far too many times I’ve sat in a swanky restaurant with a bunch of people as pretentious and bombastic as myself, who with each sentence tried to top each other in coolness, wine savvy and brainy, witty statements. Here on Long Island we just sat and talked about the new baby, the cousin going through the next divorce and the weather. It was rustic and simple. The way I like my wine.

Here are some simple and rustic wines that taste homemade:

Chateau Recougne, Bordeaux Superieur, an alright wine that had a little bit of structure and good fruit. Not a great wine but a good wine for $10.99

Borsao Tres Pico, $12.99. Tempranillo, from northeast Spain near Zaragoza. Alcoholy but low tannins, not overly fruity but with structure. Mostly Grenache grapes.

Muga Rose Rioja, $8.99. A rustic little rosé made from Rioja grapes. Tangy with pink lemonade hints and a chameleon like ability to go with food.

Dom Charbonniere Vacqueyras, $21.99. Vacqueyras is an under-appreciated region in the French Rhone Valley. This wine is fun with nice flavor and honest taste.

Montes Reserve Chardonnay, $11.99, from Curico in the Maule Valley south of Santiago. A wine made by Chileans, for Chileans, without pretense and with a knowledge of its strengths and limitations.

• Vodka Report: On the Mezzaluna Italian Vodka. This one had a slight chocolate finish and it didn’t quite mix as well as I’d like. But its smoothness and chocolate hints made it a nice one-time experience.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at

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