Hippo Manchester
October 6, 2005


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Keeping up appearances

Don’t judge a wine by its label or a wine taster by his outfit

by Tim Protzman 

Remember all the things your mother told you?

“Don’t run with scissors.” Don’t talk on the phone during a thunderstorm.” “Always wear clean underwear.” I don’t worry about these anymore. At my age I rarely run, my phone is cordless and I’m really into bleach so my briefs come out sparkling white. But I should have paid more attention to the thought behind the underwear thing, because this weekend I had a problem which reminded me that presentation is everything.

My daughter got her driver’s license and her mother helped her get a car. Early Saturday we went to Motor Vehicle to register it. Once it was street legal we did a little basic maintenance, air in the tires, check the oil and other fluids and made sure all the lights worked. Now I’m an autumn, color-wise, so this is my time of year. And before we popped the hood I changed my brick-orange shirt and put on a t-shirt. The mistake I made was not changing back into the dressier shirt before leaving the house, setting me up to violate the clean underwear rule.

My daughter took off in the car (I’ll probably see her again at Thanksgiving) and I went to the office for a meeting, wearing the tee shirt.

On the way home I stopped at a rather snooty wine shop. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s conveniently located and has a great selection. To my delight they were having a wine tasting, in a little reception room off the store. I went in, wearing the tee shirt with a few grease stains on the front. Big mistake.

Most of the people were wearing collared shirts or smart skirt sets with matching tops and jackets. They smelled nice. Their shoes were expensive. They bought wine by the case.

And there was me, in my slightly ragamuffin outfit, looking not like a wine writer but some off-the-street freeloader out for a cheap drunk. I lasted about 20 minutes before the host took me aside and told me they were closing. Everyone else stayed. Mom was right, presentation is everything.

A few years ago at a single-malt dinner I heard a great story about marketing and presentation.

It was in the early 1970s when the Japanese economy was booming and the taste for great Scotch was sweeping the Land of the Rising Sun. There was this traditional distiller from Islay, the western part of Scotland, who wanted to export his product to the Far East.

He needed the help of a giant beverage company, but he couldn’t get them to return his calls. Until he came upon a great idea.

He invited the head of the beverage company to taste what he called a 300-year-old single malt that had been aging in his cellar since the Great Fire of London. The invitation said the distillery had found the hogshead of whiskey in a sealed chamber when they were remodeling. The distiller claimed it had been sealed up in the 1790s.

The distiller took it down to London, unopened, along with his best 20-year-old single malt. The head of the export company, some Earl or Lord something, arrived at 7 p.m.

He considered himself quite the connoisseur and was intrigued at the chance to try such an old piece of history. The wooden stopper was pulled and the Scotch was gently decanted with all the care one would give to a priceless antique. The liquid was cloudy but pungent. The distiller took the crystal decanter into the kitchen of his hotel suite and poured two snifters of the precious “water of life.” Then he poured two snifters of his 20-year-old Scotch and brought the tray out to the export Lord.

They swirled, sniffed and finally tasted. The exporter was impressed. Both whiskeys were delicious, tasting of caramel and leather, with a touch of peat and wood. Then the distiller made his move.

“I’ve got a riddle for you,” he said. “Which one is the 300-year-old batch?”

“This one,” replied the Lord correctly pointing to the cloudier liquid in the snifter.

“Of course,” the distiller answered, “but which one do you like better?”

“That’s more difficult,” the Lord said,  “because I like the second one just as much, if not a little more, but I want to love the 300-year-old single malt because of the history, but it seems to have gone past its prime. The real question is what’s in the second glass?”

“That” replied the distiller, “is our 20-year-old single malt — the one you’re going to help us export.”

And that’s how Bruichladdich Single Malt Scotch Whiskey made it to Japan. Presentation may be everything but the real litmus test is always taste.

Here’s this week’s wines. Some lived up to their presentational hype, some were sleeper hits.

Pol Roger 1993 Vintage Champagne, $69.99. For anyone who doesn’t like champagne.

Toasty and yeasty with a dry finish and creamy texture. The first and best glass from the “Forbidden Tasting”

1999 Jaboulet “La Chapelle” Hermitage, $59.49. Better than the 2000 vintage with a deep raisin flavor and a smooth finish that comes from a well-made, well-aged Syrah.

2001 Rapitala Hugonis, $39.99. From Sicily. This was a big brawny wine, a 50 percent Cabernet Suavignon, 50 percent Nero d’Avola. Made to age, and it shows. Still very tannic and bitey. A big sticker shock on this one.

2001 Santi Valpolicella Classico Solane, $14.99. A wonderfully fruity wine from traditional grapes that are relatively unknown outside Italy. Sixty-five percent Corvina, 30 percent Rondinella, 5 percent Molinara from the Lake Garda region.

Hayman Hill 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2003 Meritage. I grabbed the Meritage by mistake instead of the Cab and was blown away by the structure and supple flavor.

The Cab was decent, but not up to the Meritage (rhymes with heritage, but many people still say Meritagzh). Licorice, plum and smoked ham flavors. $12.99. 

My mother also said “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Listen up, snooty wine shop and stodgy importer: I was good enough for you to rip off my critique of your Pascal Jolivet Sancerre for your website, but not to taste wine with decent folk? Next time you see me, I’ll be in my tuxedo.