March 6, 2008


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Operatic wine tasting
The continuing quest for bottles that sing arias
By Tim Protzman

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.

2/28/2008 Everything must go!

2/21/2008 His & hers bottles
2/7/2008 Friends in spam
1/31/2008 Warm up the wine
1/24/2008 A drink to them
1/17/2008 Stalking the barking dingo
1/10/2008 Wishes and predictions
1/3/2008 Bit of bubbly
12/27/2007 Drinking blind
12/20/2007 Not fighting for the right
12/13/2007 The liquor store suite
11/29/2007 World of drinkin'
11/22/2007 Thanks for the Napa cabs
11/15/2007 Drinks with Diwali
11/8/2007 Candy Corn hangover
11/1/2007 Drinks with History Channel
10/25/2007 Schooled in Shiraz
10/18/2007 Spooky wines
10/11/2007 Location, location, location
10/04/2007 Shiraz history
9/27/2007 Ingenious appellation
9/20/2007 Small world of wines
9/13/2007 How not to get screwed
9/6/2007 Wine lover's shopping trip
8/30/2007 Bottle surfing
8/23/2007 Lobster goes red
8/16/2007 Emotional tasting notes
8/9/2007 Stop, wine thief
8/2/2007 Be your own sommelier
7/26/2007 You do know your wine
7/19/2007 Booze free association
7/12/2007 Raiders of the sidewalk
7/5/2007 A sustainable buzz
6/28/2007 We are the merlot
6/21/2007 Forgot Dad? Bring booze.
6/14/2007 Jack & Jill and a pail of wine
6/7/2007 Our lady of the Rioja
5/24/2007 Breaking the fast
5/17/2007 What the best bears drink
5/10/2007It's OK to be pink
5/3/2007 In praise of tastings
4/26/2007 Invention-tini
4/19/2007 More 'Mas'
4/12/2007 Futures in a bottle
3/29/2007 Uneasy glass of spring
3/22/2007 Chateau de blech
3/8/2007 Finding new beauties
3/1/2007 Infatuation or addiction
2/15/2007 The extraordinary ordinary
2/8/2007 A glass of sweetness
2/1/2007 A glass of sweetness
1/25/2007 Ham it up
1/18/2007 Cheating on wine
1/11/2007 Burning down the tree
1/4/2007 New Year's hangover
12/28/2006 Sins of the vine
12/21/2006 Kissing frogs
12/14/2006 Wine for horrible friends
12/07/2006 Like dregs in the wine glass
11/30/2006 Gift of calmer shopping
11/23/2006 YouTube for YouWine
11/16/2006 Welcome to wine
11/9/2006 Fine art, supermarket wine
11/2/2006 The geography of grapes
10/26/2006 Please continue to hold
10/19/2006 The trouble with reds
10/12/2006 Making new friends
10/05/2006 TiVo-ing the wine
09/28/2006 From an unknown battle
09/21/2006 Toast to turkey
09/14/2006 Wine for life
09/07/2006 What are Malpeques, Alex?
08/31/2006 Hanging out wines
08/24/2006 Falling into new wine season
08/17/2006 Where has that wine been?
08/10/2006 Bringing out the dead
08/03/2006 The birth of a wine fop
07/27/2006 Slow process of maturation
07/20/2006 The pain of adolescent wines
07/13/2006 Nice day for a white wedding
07/06/2006 Scoring goals with booze
06/29/2006 Beer, it's what's for dinner
06/22/2006 A drink fit for a czar
06/15/2006 A summer of beer and fried clams
06/08/2006 Keep your cool, fool
06/01/2006 The social lubricant
05/25/2006 Water, water everywhere
05/18/2006 Big fat greek wine tasting
05/11/2006 Drinking to the end
05/04/2006 Schooled in the art of wine
04/27/2006 Make a wish
04/20/2006 Immigrant wines
04/13/2006 A pain in the glass
04/06/2006 Got milk?
03/30/2006 Throw a dart and there's wine
03/23/2006 A life of good wine
03/16/2006 Honoring the dead soldiers
03/09/2006 What once was old i new again
03/02/2006 The taste of sibling rivalry
02/23/2006 Wine travels, doesn’t sing
From grape, to barrel to red-tape jungle

02/16/2006 Love and vine
02/09/2006 A dog-drink-dog world
02/02/2006 The winos' mecca
01/26/2006 Date-nite drinks
01/19/2006 Touring eastern wine country
01/12/2006 Wine, Cheese and Granny Smith
01/05/2006 Resolve to try new wines
10 Wines To Get Lucky With

Adventures in and past the Euro-Cave
A Do-It-Yourself Wine Tasting
A Red For Everything
A Red Wth Your Leftovers?
A Tasty Way To Put Wine To The Test
A Year Of Wine
An Around-The-World Holiday
A wine for every holiday

Basking In The Mondavi Light
Behind One Door Is Great Wine
Beware The Hot Bottle
Brandy and the nude beach
Champagne, The Other White Wine
Cheers And Whines Of The Vine
Days of wine and jelly beans
Deep in the heart of Texas
Drinking for your health
Drinking like a newspaperman

Drinking Whites After Labor Day
Finding A Great Medium-Weight Drink (I)
Finding A Great Medium Weight Drink (II)
Gifts for blood, love or money
Grill and sip, sip and sip. Finding the perfect wine for barbecue
Hey baby, stay cool
How The Corleones Saved Wine

In Praise Of An American Wine
In search of the girl next door
Keeping it in the family
Keeping up appearances
Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine
My Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting
The Best Drinks On A Budget
The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot
The Long, Strange Journey Of Wine
Old French grape in the New World
Olé! to a week in wine
Opening the Parker book

Our French friends — really
Our Northern Neighbor
Poker faces and wine

Presenting A New England Vodka
Presenting The Wines Of Spring
Rewarding Your Support Staff
Schooled In The Art Of Wine
Shopping for Wine Bargains

Sitting By The Fire And Dreaming Of Wine
Slipping A Little Sideways
Spending the holidays in NYC
Spirit World Tales
Springtime calls for wine and ice cream
Sudden ugly mood swings
The new face of fine wines
The wines of fall
Thinking ahead to the holidays
Time To Stay Frosty
Tipples for turkey day
TV worth drinking
What it means to miss N.O.
What To Drink When You Eat Wild
What's Your Wine Sign
White’s OK after Labor Day
Wine Between The Season
Wine for the NASCAR set
Wine is in at the Inn
Wine’ll make you crazy
Wine Works With Red Sauce