Hippo Manchester
August 4, 2005

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Poker faces and wine

To play the game, you have to ante (belly) up

By Tim Protzman 

Texas Hold’em Poker is big. Everyone’s playing it — kids at camp, commuters on the train, even your grandmother gets together once a week to play.

(Have you called her lately?)

Even I like it, and I’m a crank. I think it’s because the cards have such pretty names. The Pocket Cards, Burned cards, The River and the Turn. They remind me how, a few years ago, all the FM stations decided to brand themselves with single-word names: The River, The Fox, The Rocker. You could probably cross the country and listen to the same music format all the way, you’d just have to pick up the next station as the signal fades. It’s very comforting in a way, like being able to get Moons Over My Hammy in any Denny’s you visit.

Wine is a bit like that. You can find the major brands anywhere in the country. If you like Woodbridge Chardonnay, it’s widely available. It’s a comfort thing and I defend to the death anyone who chooses their same favorite over and over again. Buying wine is little like playing Texas Hold’em — it can be a gamble. It’s psychological, too. Why pass up a sure thing for an unknown commodity?

I’m on the opposite side of the scale. It’s my job to try lots of wine and tell you about what’s good, great and a bargain. I explore, ask questions and have other people taste too. My tastes run to very dry Bordeaux like reds, spicy Grenache Syrah blends and juicy Pinot Noirs. But I gladly try Chenin Blancs and Rieslings to be able to offer the reader suggestions.

This week’s wines are like this week’s Texas Hold’em game. Some busted, some bluffed and some chickened out. It is like the second straight I nearly had until Miss Haley pushed in 10 and I folded. As luck would have it, the River, or last card, was a five and I would have won. So take this piece of advice: sometimes you can be too cautious, especially when you play for pennies like we do. The next time you feel experimental, go for it. Just make sure it’s around $10 a bottle or clip this column out and try something I suggest. And remember confidence is 90 percent of the game.

This week’s wines

Elvis is still dead, but his wine hasn’t left the building. Elvis Wines from Graceland Cellars in Graton, Calif. breaks my first rule of wine & spirits — if it’s a collectible then you’re paying for the novelty, not the wine. I’ve seen Frank Sinatra on wine labels and there’s something called Marilyn Merlot. I’ve never tried these because right after Mr. Presley died (and I remember where I was Aug. 16, 1977, when I first heard he died — working as a stock boy in a supermarket) there were a slew of Elvis whiskey decanters that had the same bourbon as the plain bottles but were twice the price because they had the King riding in a Cadillac convertible.

But Elvis Wines aren’t made to be a collectible. They are made for drinking and enjoyment. There are four varietals all priced under $14. The Blue Suede Chardonnay, The King Cabernet Sauvignon, All Shook Up Sauvignon Blanc and Jailhouse Red Merlot. I tried the King Cab and All Shook Up Sauvignon Blanc.

2002 Graceland Cellars The King Cabernet Sauvignon $12.99 — Not a whole lot of skeleton and structure, but the fruit is perfect, not overly sweet or fake tasting. It’s refreshing to see a serious food wine. Flavors of elder and wine berries with a dry start and a robust chocolate and green spinach finish.

2004 Graceland Cellars Shook Up Sauvignon Blanc $9.99 — A refreshing little rile of sweet gherkin flavors and citric hints ran through this wine. Pleasant and easy to have alone as an aperitif or with tomato olive and basil focaccia bread.

Trying these wines made me feel like I got dealt two Pocket Aces.

2004 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc $14.99 — Too sweet for me but Squiggy, a real card shark, had a glass, liked it, and took the pot with a full house. Perfumey with honey and cantaloupe flavors that I found hard to take on their own, but really took off with salami and cheese.

2001 Glass Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon $8.99 — Part of Markham Vineyards. Very much exceeded my expectations. Lean and sinewy with plum, tobacco and cardamom. From Californian grapes.

2002 Salmon Creek Cabernet Sauvignon $7.99 — Too fruity and homogenized. One-dimensional and listless. Like getting a three instead of a jack on the River card.

2003 Sutter Home White Zinfandel $3.99 — After reading another wine column I tried this and couldn’t really see any similarities with Old World rose wines. Overly sweet, but it did make a damn fine spritzer.

1999 Paul Pernot & Sons Santenay Bieveau $19.99 — Not like an American or New Zealand Pinot Noir. Soft, with a green olive and vermouth-like finish. Very easy to drink, but very delicate. New World palates may find this one a shrinking violet. A Burgundy from the Santenay area.

1999 Patrizi Barolo $25.49 — Went all in and lost with this one. Great Barolo’s are great and expensive; this just had too much raisin flavor and was alcoholic and fiery where it should have been tannic and muscular.