Breaking the fast
A nice merlot after a week off
By Tim Protzman firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week I went cold turkey.
No wine, beer, cordials, postprandials, gin, vodka, moonshine, slivovitz, Kentucky sipping whiskey or fermented fruit.
When I was in high school my friend’s mother kept a jar of slightly fermented, homemade brandied fruit on her counter and if you ate some on an empty stomach you got a slight (like 3.2 percent beer) buzz. The only drawback was you smelled like a Christmas fruit cake. And by Monday of this week even that was looking good.
I took some time off to cleanse my palate and get rid of a few pounds of bloat. Cocktail time was replaced with walk time. I probably could have gone longer but I got my yearly wine promo package from Kendall Jackson. In December, they always send me a really nice scenic calendar of their vineyards and the rolling Sonoma countryside. This year’s was the same, except the full moon dates are wrong by like two weeks. And I’m a person who likes to plan his lunacy in advance. The wines they sent me were good. And they’re readily available.
Rather than taste them alone I decided that I’d shop for something to test them against. I went to a wine shop that had just completed remodeling. It was no longer cramped and quaint. It was now spacious with symmetric display racks and vertical stands of bottles. Walking in, I thought about the plight of the American wine consumer. Not the collector, but someone who appreciates wine and maybe buys a bottle a week at the most. What does the market offer for them? Do they choose the same wine over and over again because they’ve been adventurous and gotten burned? Or do they think they don’t know enough about wine to make an informed decision? Probably both.
I know the owner of the wine shop. He takes the time to answer my questions, listen to what I want and make suggestions. He doesn’t always hit the mark, but at least some of his “dogs” are interesting. And choosing wine isn’t always scientific. There’s a bit of magic to it.
When I walked into the shop Gary was vacuuming the front mat. I waved. Then I followed the vacuum cord and orange heavy-duty extension past the premixed cocktails, around the Plexiglas case of expensive wines. Todd, my food-critic friend, calls this section “the punished wines.” You’ve seen it. Wine locked up in cases or shackled to the shelf. Wines like Opus One, Chateau Margaux and Gaja. Some places even have a separate climate-controlled room to isolate these “formal” wines. And as the average consumer I’ve found that the fancier the housing the more the mark-up. It’s a little embarrassing to ask the clerk about the wines and then not be able to afford them.
When I reached the end of the vacuum cord I was in the Chardonnay section. The cord disappeared into the wall under a few bottles of La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. I took it as a sign and put the bottle in my wire basket. Then I stupidly walked into the beer section. I wanted one bottle of beer for this marinade recipe. Since I only needed half a cup for the sauce I wanted a good one so I could rationalize finishing off the rest. That’s when Paul came to help. Paul knows beer. He lets you know he knows beer. He talks about beer. And the beer he suggests is almost always good.
And there’s another lesson for the Average Consumer. Beer is generally consistent. Wine differs from year to year. But Paul’s beer-talk had my head wobbling — India Pale Ales, Double Bocks, Fruity Hefeweizens and Imperial Stouts. Rauchbiers which have a smoky flavor, and his current Hottie of the Month, Saranac Imperial India Pale Ale. Paul had me overloaded. I felt as if I were back in 1993, a newbie wino looking in a package store for “a good Burgundy.” Sometimes it pays to keep it simple. I chose a Narragansett Lager. Never let too much knowledge dissuade you from going with your gut.
Besides the La Crema I got two other bottles. And I tested them myself. No Wine Rookies, no separate opinion, which means I could be wrong. And using the American Bandstand rating score no song gets 100 points, but even the worst tune has some redeeming value. I tended to be a little lenient. Remember, I never met a wine yet that I pronounced undrinkable.
Here are the wines I opened:
• 2004 La Crema Chardonnay ($14.99). A little creamy for me. I like a more Chablis-esque finish, but this had the exact sweet fruit notes and acidity of a Chassagne Montrachet, which costs about 10 times what this does.
• 2004 Stolpman Syrah ($26.49). Gary told me it would blacken my teeth it was so dense and deep. Very Rhone-y and heavy. Not a summer-weight wine. Yummy, but chewy.
• 2005 Laetitia Grand Reserve Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir ($32.44). A disappointment. There’s no discernable difference in this wine from the $21.49 Laetitia Pinot Noir. Both are great, but why pay more?
• 2004 Kendall Jackson Special Selection Merlot ($13.99). Nice but one-dimensional with plum, grape and chocolate hints.
• 2004 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Merlot ($19.99). A 90-point wine (sorry, Mr. Parker). Ever since people decided merlot had its 15 minutes (sorry, Mr. Warhol) it’s been getting better and more like the third- and fourth-growth Bordeauxs from Pomerol & Margaux. Could it be benevolent neglect? Whatever it is, merlot’s the best-buy varietal now. I even saw the price of Clos Du Val Merlot has come down.
• 2005 Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Meritage ($22.99). Interesting and intriguing. It’s not in the same league with Opus and Dominus, but it’s 80 percent cheaper. A great way to experiment and play it safe taste-wise and in the pocketbook.
Go to www.nh.gov/liquor for a locator of wines sold at New Hampshire state liquor stores.