Greetings, Wine Lovers!
I’m happy to be here today, subbing for Todd Kliman, who is taking a well-deserved vacation. With the help of Ann Limpert, who is making sure I don’t get entangled in technical difficulties, I’m ready to tackle your questions about wine, wine and food pairings, best bargain wines and where to find them, even what to have with dinner. Going to a dinner party and wondering about “wine etiquette”? Fire away, that’s why I’m here.
While we’re online, you can help me as well. Tell me what wines you like to drink, where you shop for them, and what restaurants get you excited about wine. Tell me what you would like to read in Washingtonian’s wine coverage – both in the magazine and in my weekly posts on the “Best Bites” blog.
I hope you like my efforts to poke holes in the “conventional wisdom” that can so often make wine needlessly intimidating, as well as my explanations of why certain conventions about wine do actually make sense. And I hope you enjoyed my October column about East Coast wines and three restaurants where daring sommeliers are offering the best wines from the Atlantic Seaboard. They’ve done the hard work so all you have to do is enjoy the fruit of their labors and discover that there is more to American wine than California.
Have you been enjoying the Indian Summer? I can’t remember the last time we experienced such a stretch of 90-degree days in October! While we may be muttering about the drought, our local winemakers have just completed an exciting, if sometimes bittersweet harvest.
This long, dry summer and fall has given us ideal grape growing conditions. In August, I visited Linden Vineyards and asked winemaker Jim Law how the season was progressing. “I never describe a vintage before the grapes are in the winery,” he said, recalling the September tropical storms of 2003 and 2005. But I caught a gleam of excitement in his eye as he said that.
Last week, Jim reported to me that 2007 should be “a breakout vintage,” especially for red wines in Virginia. “Many winegrowers have been fine-tuning and focusing their skills over the past several years and we were all handed the 'dream vintage' this year,” he said. While Virginia winemakers like to compare their wines to Bordeaux in terms of acidity and styling, Law said this vintage had “California parameters” in terms of grape ripeness and maturity.
In such a vintage, the danger is picking too early, when sugars are high but the grapes have yet to ripen fully.
But remember Easter weekend, when the high temperatures never rose above freezing for three consecutive days? Winemakers in the southeast called it the “Easter Massacre,” because vines were already budding and at their most vulnerable to frost. In parts of North Carolina and as far west as Missouri, some winemakers were reporting total crop loss before their vines could even form grapes.
Our region fared a little better. Around Charlottesville, white grapes had already budded and were hit hard, but reds – which begin their season a little later – were largely spared. In Northern Virginia and further north into Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, the frost was a warning of what nature can do, but ultimately harmless.
So in Virginia, expect fewer white wines, especially from the Charlottesville area, but tremendous reds. I’m hearing similar enthusiastic reports from New York, where the crop was excellent in quantity and quality. That’s welcome news for a region that has suffered some tough vintages this decade.
But enough from me, for now – on to your questions!
I've always felt wine writers do a disservice with their annual "Oh my gosh, what wines to have on Thanksgiving?" articles. Supposedly the flavors are not wine friendly – the turkey (hey – it's bland! Anything goes with turkey for crying out loud!), or the stuffing, or the – ugh – sweet canned cranberry sauce.
I always say, "Open one of everything!" Then choose carefully when to sip. Any wine is going to go with something on a traditional Thanksgiving table.
In your budget range, I might suggest a nice Alsatian Pinot Gris, from Trimbach for example. Or an Oregon Riesling or Pinot Noir from Chehalem.
Another inexpensive option is Beaujolais Nouveau. It always comes out a week before T-day, it's slightly sweet and fruity, a fun wine that will go with anything (even cranberry sauce) and not distract you from the festivities. It's also a celebration of the recent harvest – just as Thanksgiving was, originally.
By the way, I'll be hosting a charity dinner Nov. 15 at Clyde's in Penn Quarter, to benefit So Others Might Eat. It's a Thanksgiving theme, with a variety of wines to try.
Hi Steve – you know very well I've been online for a decade now, beginning when I was the wine columnist for Sidewalk DC. Tom Sietsema was my editor then. (Tom doesn't discuss this period in his life anymore.)
I don't generally travel in the Cult Cab circles, preferring to focus on wines that readers might actually buy and drink. However, you might try the eRobertParker message board.
I live in Silver Spring, but I do most of my wine shopping in the District or Northern Virginia, where the laws make it much easier for importers and retailers to offer a varied, interesting selection. Montgomery County is ranked by The Wine Institute – the California trade organization – as the worst jurisdiction in the entire country for its restrictions on wine retailers and restaurants. It's been getting a little better in recent years because some distributors are taking the effort to work with the system. But wine lovers still call it the "People's Republic of Montgomery County."
Have you ever noticed how many wine stores there are in the District within one block of the Montgomery County line? Morris Miller near Silver Spring, Chevy Chase Liquors, Magruders and Circle on Connecticut Ave near Chevy Chase Circle, and Paul's and Rodman's on Wisconsin Ave. There's a reason for that.
As for your picnic/cookout wines, if you're talking about public parks, it doesn't matter where you buy them. But any DC or Northern Virginia stores will have a variety of inexpensive, fun and delicious wines.
That said, I should mention one area in which Montgomery County's liquor stores actually do well – Chilean and Argentine wines. That's because of a local company, Springfield-based Billington Wine importers, who carry Cousino-Macul, 2 Brothers, Catena and Trumpeter wines. Other good labels from South America that are widely available in MoCo are Casalapostolle, Santa Rita and Santa Julia. These are generally in the $8 – $20 range.
You know, sometimes these inexpensive wines are pretty good! A few years ago, someone gave me a bottle of the Charles Shaw Syrah, which I served blind to a couple friends – they all guessed it was a nice $10 Cote du Rhone. So go figure.
Wine snobs love to scoff at "Two Buck Upchuck", but if this is the kind of wine you like, and the price range that you're comfortable in, go for it. Don't let that keep you from experimenting with other wines, however.
Leftover wine … what a concept!!!
That's not really an issue at my house. But I'm a skeptic of the gizmos that claim to protect your wine by sucking the air out of the bottle or replacing it with an inert gas. A friend uses Private Reserve, one of the gas tricks, and claims it'll keep a bottle fresh for weeks even without refrigeration. VacuVins don't maintain a good seal, I've found.
If I do have some leftover, I just shove the cork back in (upside down, so the end will fit in better) as far as I can, then stick it in the door of the fridge. I try to drink it or cook with it within a day or two.
Of course, screwcaps make it even easier.
Cousino-Macul and Santa Rita from Chile have nice wines under $10 (and even better ones in the $10-20 range), as do Alamos and Trumpeter from Argentina, as I mentioned above.
This one straddles the $10 mark, but if you live or shop at CostCo in Northern Virginia, look for Cameron Hughes wines. They were just introduced into this market last month, and they are excellent wines at terrific prices. Hughes is based in San Francisco and travels the world looking for lots (meaning quantities) of excellent excess wine that he can sell for less than a typical winery might actually be able or willing to sell it for. It's the same model that Marvin Stirman, who I wrote about in the September issue, uses for his Calistoga Estates label. Hughes, however, is now offering not just a California Cabernet from Napa Valley's Yountville District for $13, but a nice Barrossa Shiraz from Australia at $12 and a Garnacha Rose from Spain at $10, perfect for these lingering days of Indian Summer. These are small-lot wines, meaning there won't be boatloads of them, but they should be replaced by other wines when supplies run out.
This is precisely why many dessert wines come in half-bottles – 375 ml instead of the usual 750 ml. But if you can't finish one, it shouldn't matter. Because of the sugar, these wines will keep a little more reliably than a regular table wine. Just stick a cork in it and put it in the fridge, but drink it up within a few days.
Fortified wines, such as ports, are trickier. Aged tawnies can often last for weeks in the door of the fridge once opened, thanks to the many years they spent in large oak casks, with some exposure to oxygen. Vintage or late-bottled vintage ports, however, were aged in bottle and are more fragile when exposed to oxygen. They should be consumed quickly. Er, well, on the day they're opened, or the next day at most. You get my drift.
The best advice I can give is to take advantage of free tastings in stores. I did most of my novice studies at Bell wine shop on M St between 18th and 19th. On Saturdays about noon, they open 10 bottles for customers to taste, then stand around trashing them for an hour or two. It's a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about what people like to drink and how much – or how little – they are willing to pay for it. Bell was recently sold, as I reported on the blog, but the Saturday tasting continue for now with Bob and Fred Luskin presiding.
Other stores have tastings too, usually with a wholesaler rep doing the pouring, so the discussion may not be as freewheeling. But these are worth checking out, because they give you an opportunity to decide what you like before you plunk down your hard earned cash.
Be careful though – after visiting two or three stores on a Saturday, you can find yourself saying, "Oooh, I'll take a cayshe of zat shtuff!"
Thanks for the kind words!
For your Cuban friend, I suggest something Spanish, perhaps one of the new-style wines from Toro or Jumilla. These can offer great value and at a lower price than more well-known areas such as Ribera del Duero or Priorat.
Go to your favorite store and look at the back labels for the importer's name. In Spanish wine, look for "Aurelio Cabestrero Selections" by Grapes of Spain; Eric Solomon; or Classic Wines of Spain. These are reliable importers – not the only ones, but their wines tend to be widely available in DC stores.
Reading the back label, by the way, is the best method for learning about imported wines. Find one you like, then experiment with others from the same importer. I cut my teeth on French wines with Robert Kacher Selections way back in the day.
I haven't been there in years, actually. It's the same company as Total Wine & More in Virginia and up and down the coast, so yes, their selection should be extensive and their pricing very competitive.
At any of the Total stores, look for Barone Fini Pinot Grigio and Merlot from northern Italy. Fantastic values at about $10-15. They have two grigios, actually, one from the higher altitude vineyards of the Alto Aldige. Both are excellent. The Merlot might be a bit lighter and leaner than you are used to if you drink Californian – let it breathe for awhile and it will open up nicely.
Congrats to the pooch!
For top Champagne selection, try Wide World of Wines on Wisconsin Ave or MacArthur Liquors on MacArthur Blvd. But any quality wine store should be able to order it for you.
Unfortunately, I think inflation is here to stay. One of my favorite wine cartoons showed a couple in a restaurant, with the man yakking on about how he used to buy the wine they were drinking for $2 a bottle, or he got a case of Lafite for some ungodly cheap sum. In the next frame, he's still blathering on, but she has hung herself.
I think what we'll see is a number of wineries creating new labels or lines of wine to fill in the price brackets that their established wines have vacated. These new ones can still be quite good, of course, but often they might not be quite the equal of the first tier and might even drain some good juice from the (now more expensive) original.
The proof is ultimately in the bottle and the glass, and in your wallet's comfort level.
With that, it's time to say goodbye! Thanks for all the great questions and encouraging feedback. Thanks also to Ann Limpert for her help, especially when the system kicked me off and I had to rewrite an answer. (I hope no one noticed!)
Please continue to read the wine columns each month, as well as my weekly posts on Best Bites! And don't hesitate to let us know what you think of our wine coverage …
All the best, and remember – Life is Too Short to Be Afraid of Wine!