Operatic wine tasting
The continuing quest for bottles that sing arias
By Tim Protzman email@example.com
Wine is like television. It’s everywhere but it rarely offers anything of substance.
Really, think about it. You can get wine in grocery stores, state stores, some convenience stores, restaurants, bars, taverns, sporting events and in some churches at communion. And most of it is ordinary, pedantic and frivolous. I mean you really have to be quite agreeable to praise the glass of pinot grigio they serve at your local pizza house. Not that you can’t find something interesting about it, which seems to be my fault. While some of the people I taste with, that collective group called the Wine Rookies, have no problem saying things like “This is awful,” or “Yecch” or “These grapes would have been better in Raisin Bran,” I tend to be a little more forgiving, finding the single on-key pear-flavored note in a glass of house chardonnay that stands out amidst the mediocrity of the other flavors.
But that’s what wine is about. The quest. The search. The triumph of finding a bottle that speaks to you. Not a “hey you” or lullaby, but a full aria. Maybe I’m spoiled. Maybe I ought to focus on the wines I’ve truly loved. Wines that spoke to me of their terraced vineyards. Wines that shouted. Grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, yelling, “Taste me! Drink deep, for I am Riesling!”
Wines that changed my life: The 1989 Grand-Puy-Lacoste that taught me the splendors of good Bordeaux. The 1990 Jaboulet Hermitage “La Chappelle” with its deep ruby spice and the taste of smoke and green olives. You taught me the beauty of the sun-drenched Rhone. The 1994 Archery Summit Oregon Pinot Noir and its counterpart, the 1999 Drouhin Clos de Vougeot. These gentle, nuanced wines taught me that delicateness is a flavor of its own. And that competing tastes and smells of ammonia, stable, violets, sour cherries and pencil lead could produce a symphony of richness and beauty. The 1983 Chateau Lynch-Bages that keyed me into the knowledge that even in a year not declared the Vintage of the Decade, the wines can be exquisite. And my recent infatuations: Barolo and Champagne. Sparkly, toasty, almost like homemade cherry soda pinks and bubbling charmers like Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill that tastes like a superb white Burgundy with bubbles.
Wines that effortlessly taught me, on the first sip, exactly what their varietal composition is capable of. Wines that have been anticipated and have raised anticipation.
Today my love for wine is banked. The flames burnt to embers. I still seek, but know that finding gets harder and harder. Why? Is it that the $10 to $20 a bottle market, which includes mostly all wine drinkers, has so many choices? Is it that the wines that get the shelf space are made by huge vineyards that produce unmemorable wines at a great profit? Or is it me?
Have I set the bar too high? Not every bottle can be a Grand Cru. Have I tasted myself thin? Is there some invisible ceiling between those who know 95 percent of everything about wine and those who know 96 percent and above?
The beauty and fatal flaw in wine is that no two bottles are ever alike. Pop open a Bunnahabhain 18-year-old single-malt Islay Scotch ($72.99) and almost every time taste the same damp peat, the sharp leather and spice, the bitter, medicinal herbs and the smoke flavor of the barrel ageing.
With wine two vintages can be as different from each other as beer is from vodka. Less sun, rain at harvest, small berries on the vine all add their influence. And like Diogenes or maybe the Flying Dutchman, we wine lovers ply the seas of crushed grapes for eternity looking for the perfect, honest wine.
Perhaps I found it. In an effort to clear away some of the cobwebs and preconceived ideas, I’ve been doing more reading about wine. What’s going on in Romania. The great producers of South Africa. The European influence on the Chilean and Mendoza, Argentina, growing area. Wines that were popular 50, 100 or 150 years ago. Wines from pioneering Napa vineyards that supplied the restaurants of San Francisco and Chicago. But reading is no substitute for tasting. Here’s what I tasted recently.
• 2003 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon ($42.99) While it smelled like a great cabernet, almost Bordeaux-like, its flavor and finish were weak and homogenized.
• 2005 Acacia Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir ($22.99) I enjoyed this one and it gave me hope. Cherries, Sour Patch Kids and a touch of red licorice.
• 2005 Chateau Grand Mas Bordeaux Superiore ($7.99) You get what you pay for. Very green and tannic.
• 2003 Odfjell Aliara ($22.99) It’s nicely priced and like a high school jazz quartet it hits most of the right notes. Very pleasant and borderline delicious. The Odfjell family from Norway made billions in shipping and the scion has opened a Chilean vineyard. 54 percent Carmenere, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Cabernet Franc, 5 percent Carignan and 4 percent Malbec. This is one wine I buy over and over.