Wine — Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine

Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine

By Tim Protzman

Plus, lifting a glass in honor of Pope John Paul

 

In 1993 we were working at a private club in a dying Northeast city. No matter what we tried, we always seemed to end up with fewer dues-paying members at the end of month than we had at the beginning. And we tried everything. Shrimp Night, Italian Renaissance Dinners with opera singers and the fateful Polo Day that ended when the tent blew down and Mrs. Benham forced Jimmy to crawl into the wreckage and retrieve her purse from a bowl of coleslaw.

We worked hard and played hard. We drank a lot of white wines; not just chardonnays, like the exquisite Wild Horse, but Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Oregon and Washington state. We especially favored Hogue and Chateau St. Michelle.

Occasionally we gathered at each other’s homes for dinner. Gil, the beverage manager, had a nice screen house tucked in a shady corner of his yard. Here we wine novices crossed the equator into the red-wine latitudes, tasting merlots and cabernets for the first time. Most memorable were Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon and the mysterious Chateau Fortia, a Chateau Nuff du Pop (as we called it) all the way from France!

These wines were deep, meaningful and full of youth. They had structure, but were easy to drink. They tasted of grapes, sun and the clay and chalk of Northern California.

Some were cellared, especially the prickly 1991 vintage, but most were drunk.

We were not wealthy or even comfortable, but the wine wasn’t that expensive either. The 1990 vintage was pricier, but you could still get a 1991 or even a 1987 that wouldn’t break the bank.

The 1990 Caymus ran $26.99, and the 1991 Ridge Lytton Springs was $21.99, but we found a high-volume shop that sold it for $17.99. Then the heralded 1994 vintage came out and the price jumped. Today, the 2002 Caymus’ suggested retail price is $70. The 2003 Lytton Springs runs $33 to $37 a bottle.

In a way it was a good thing. We moved on and discovered other wines. Barolo from Italy, Australian Shiraz and finicky Burgundies. I still try Ridge at least once a year, but I’ve not had Caymus since the mid ’90s. It’s too rare, too allocated and expensive.

Looking back on this time of great wine at low prices brings to mind the line from the Joni Mitchell song: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”*

Yes. Sometimes loss is the only way to true appreciation. And this week I feel that way about the Pope.

John Paul II was a pope with the rare combination of deep spirituality and amazing leadership abilities. And as Catholics and non-Catholics realize the full impact of his loss, I’m going to tell a story of earlier popes, and wine.  

On April 4, 1292, Pope Nicholas IV died in Rome. The transition was not easy. The Church was involved in the politics of Italy and Europe and it took two years to elect a successor that was agreeable to the cardinals. The new pope, Celestine V, was a hermit who lived in spiritual isolation in the Italian province of Abruzzi. He was pope for only six months when he abdicated. His successor was Boniface VIII, who, some said had convinced Celestine to quit.

Boniface’s reign was eight long years marked by strife. He was defeated in battle and forced to take refuge inside the walls of his home town, Agnani. When he died he left a divided College of Cardinals; some had fought him, some had fought each other. His successor was Benedict XI, who died after six months in office. The Conclave after his death lasted 11 months before a new pope was elected. It was full of conspiracy, backbiting and practical jokes. Many cardinal’s beds were short sheeted. Finally, they elected Bertrand de Got, the archbishop of Bordeaux. He became Pope Clement V.

To avoid Italian politics, he moved the Papacy to Avignon, France, where it remained for

70 years. His l successor, John XXII planted a papal vineyard around 1316. Vines were planted in the hill about a limestone quarry and the wine came to be known as;

Chateauneuf-du-Pape or “new house of the Pope.” Today Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the premier appellation in the Southern Rhone Valley, an area where wine has been made for 2,600 years.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a deep spicy wine made primarily from the Grenache grape. Each bottle is allowed to bear the Papal symbol of crossed keys, which is usually embossed into the glass. The wine can be drunk young, but also has the capacity for moderate ageing, which smoothes the tannins. Mourvedre grapes are also added in a small proportion to complete the fabled wine. And even though most of the wines are red, a small amount of white wine is produced from the Clairette, Picpoul and White Grenache grapes.

Top producers include; Chateau Rayas, Chateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Mont Redon and Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe. You’ll pay anywhere from $40 to $300, depending on the vintage. Many of these producers have decent second label wines that are more affordable. Instead of the pricey Chateau de Beaucastel, try the Beaucastel Coudoulet at half the price of the first label.

This weekend, in remembrance of things past, I’ll raise a glass of Chateau Fortia, $32.99, an old friend and good wine with hints of cinnamon, red pepper, cedar smoke and brandied plums; toasting good wine at low prices and the privilege of having lived during

The reign of a great pope.

Wine tip of the week: Lost Vineyards of Portugal red table wine. $3.99. With no vintage year on the bottle and a clearance rack price I was suspicious. But a quick check of the website (www.lostvineyards.com) told me the grapes were Castelao, and a quick sip

told me I was on to something. This fresh, fruity wine came on like a cross between

Beaujolais and Sangiovese framed by slight tannins. Great with cheese!

* “They Paved Paradise and put up a Parking Lot.”  1971 

Find your bottle

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission can help you find your beverage with a click or two. Just go to www.nh.gov/liquor, type the name of your wine into the product locator and click “go.” The site’s search engine will come up with a list of stores that carry the bottle you seek.

- Tim Protzman

 
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