Friday, October 26, 2007

Greatest Misses

From a recent conversation:
"You know, Mike -- by nature, you're more or less a cynical bastard. But when you write about wine, you always say such positive things. Have you ever run into a wine you didn't like?"
It's a good question. I mean, I'm usually pretty lucky with the wines I end up reviewing, but there are some I've bumped into that just…well…won't be on my list. I tend to spare you folks from reading about them -- but why not publish a cautionary tale once in awhile?

What follows are some wines I've run into during my explorations that didn't make the cut...

Cline 2006 Viognier -- I'm generally a fan of Cline wine. They're a good midline wine producer. Heck, I used a Cline in the installment where I talked about "wine sniffing." They generally make very decent wine at reasonable prices. I was excited about the Viognier, since the weather is cooling off a bit, and the weight of Viognier works well as we leave the heat. Also, I'm a sucker for a pretty-smelling wine. Unfortunately, things stopped there. The nose was slightly perfumey, like many Viogniers -- but not as strong as I'm used to. The body can only be described as "weak." It was like drinking fruity water, and the finish was the definition of what they call in WineSpeak, "flabby." Much better Viogniers are available.

Domaine Guindon 2005 Muscadet -- A friend of mine recommended a muscadet not long ago, and I wondered why I hadn't made myself at least passingly familiar with the varietal. I bought one at the store, chilled it a bit, gave it a swig, and remembered why I'd not done so. When I first started learning about wine, I picked up a Kevin Zraly wine course book and worked my way through. One of the first stops was "The White Wines of France." In the Loire Valley region, they make wine from the muscadet grape. That's not to be confused with Muscat -- the grape used for any number of sweeter white & dessert wines. This grape yields a somewhat dry wine which allegedly pairs well with shrimp & shellfish. I remember not exactly finding it to my liking. I'd not bought another -- until this one. And I remembered immediately why I didn't much care for it. The nose of this wine smelled alkaline to me, almost metallic. The main taste of the wine is incredibly dry and quickly turns really tart. The finish of the wine left my tongue feeling like a carpet. In fairness, since then I found that muscadet is fabulous with oysters on the half-shell, but unless you've got some salty shellfish on the menu, you might want to look elsewhere.

Australian Riesling in General -- As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love me some Riesling. I enjoy this wine because: (a) It's food friendly. (b) It's affordable. (c) It's generally yummy. I've also read recently that Australia has been "very successful" at growing Riesling. If that's so, I haven't run into many. I've tried a couple -- Lindemans 2004 "Bin 75" Riesling and Rosemount Estates 2005 Riesling. Given, both are from large-scale producers. Both are semi-sweet and crisp, and you'll get some lemon and apple from each, but nothing to write home about. They're both pretty inexpensive, so if you're doing a dinner party and your guests aren't picky, they'll probably all like this. If they are picky, make sure you get some food and other wines in them before cracking this one. Seriously -- if any of you out there in VineLand have some suggestions for Aussie Riesling, please pass them along. I hate to write off an entire country's varietal, after all.

There you have it -- a few of the wines I'd think twice about. Feel free to disagree. If there are wines you expected to be something special (or at least decent) and ended up disappointing, share your stories. Think of it as group therapy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again?

The newest addition to the "Vine's Benefactors" reflects on my past. Some of you may know that I did indeed attend Duke University, and the good folks at newest entertainment paper there -- the Durham Flyer -- decided to start running the Vine.

From Brightleaf to 9th Street to the Bryan Center, I guess I made it back for my class reunion after all. Welcome aboard -- even if you happen to root for Carolina...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Manolo Blahnik. Kate Spade. Mad Housewife?

"In marketing I've seen only one strategy that can't miss -- and that is to market to your best customers first, your best prospects second and the rest of the world last."
- John Romero

Marketing fascinates me.

Ever since I took an "Advertising and Society" class my senior year at [redacted], I've looked at advertisements with a more critical eye. I also received the worst grade on any paper in my academic career in that class because I focused too tightly on marketing in my research -- or at least that's the explanation the TA in the class gave.

It's all about appealing to the target demographic. Advertisers get brief chunks of time to make an impression, so message must be tightly targeted. You want to appeal to young men? Use scantily clad women (or perhaps scantily clad men). You want to appeal to older men? Mention a life free from prostate trouble. You want to appeal to middle-aged folks? Get them worried about either paying for children and retirement, or remind them that they can still feel young. And then there's the John Mellencamp-themed Chevy ads. (You know the one: "This is awrrrr counnnntreeeeeee."). They seem to annoy as many people as the Applebee's "Gilligan's Island" spots -- so I'm yet to figure where they're aimed…

So what does this have to do with wine? Women account for 57% of wine sales in the US, and most female consumers of wine drink what they buy almost immediately. According to Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women," women "look for the experience" in wine. "We think about who we're with, what we're eating," she said. "Women buy visually, paying attention to packaging. They look for a transition between day and night, work and play."

Wine sellers are quick on the uptake. Interesting labels, odd bottle shapes, funky names for wines -- these are aimed at casual wine drinkers and/or people who tend to consume wines not long after purchase, since those two demographics make up the majority of wine sales. A typical, old-school cursive covered bottle with a proudly emblazoned vintage but no other "obvious" information isn't going to stand out while strolling the aisles of Liquor Direct.

Couple this notion with Sbrocco's thesis -- and you'll get a lot of wines marketed at women for "specific" use in particular environments. Now, I'm not going to claim knowledge of what those environments may be…I'll leave those to you to envision or share in the comments. That said, here are a few wines who clearly weren't marketed towards my gender:

Little Black Dress 2005 Chardonnay -- From their publicity, "Fashioned specifically to capture the pure essence of what a woman wants in a wine, Little Black Dress signifies all that is elegant, confident, sexy and today." Pretty bold statement for an $8 bottle. Is it "sexy and today?" I have no clue, but it's decent. It comes off the hangar with a nose like a buttery chard -- creamy and citrusy. It's medium bodied for a chardonnay, and makes no bones about being Californian. There's plenty of toasty oak in this wine. However, instead of becoming buttery, it's turns more crisp -- an interesting mix of European and American styling. The finish is oaky and somewhat dry. We had this one with some grilled swordfish and yellow rice and it went quite nicely.

Mad Housewife 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon -- "This is your time. Time to enjoy a moment to yourself. A moment without the madness." Perhaps this is a reworking of the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper," but hey -- whatever gets you through. Actually, this is a very decent Cabernet. It's nothing spectacular, but very approachable. The Mad Housewife has a fragrant nose of currants and blackberries. There's a nice fruity taste with just an edge of tannin. Finish is slightly dry. The Sweet Partner in Crime said that she found it "Zin-ish, but not quite that strong a flavor." It's a $10 bottle, which is probably about right for the quality.

Bitch 2005 Grenache -- I remember the first time I saw this wine. I was wandering down the Australian wine aisle when I spotted this bright pink label with "Bitch" delicately scripted. I had a hard time running this wine down to review -- as it tends to sell pretty briskly, for reasons I would need a second "X" chromosome to properly understand. When did "bitch" become a term of endearment? I used that word to describe that Advertising and Society TA for a decade. That all changed when TA-Bitch became the Sweet Partner in Crime ten years later, but that's a story for another day.

That said, this is a much fruitier, heavier wine than I expected from a straight Grenache. Most Grenaches tend to be on the light side, but this one refuses to take a back seat. (Apparently, Grenache is also a bitch to grow…) Blindfolded, I'd think might be a more manly zinfandel, but Bitch brings the strength. At 15% alcohol -- this is not a wine to be trifled with. The nose is full of brandy-covered plums. There's some licorice to go with the fruit when you taste, and the finish is surprisingly dry. Nice tannin. $11-12.

Of course, since I'm male, you can probably discount most of what I say above. I'll do a followup column on manly wines soon. Suggestions are welcome…

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two-Buck Chuck

Great moments in cinema, Bull Durham edition:

Crash Davis gives Nuke LaLoosh advice about how to handle "The Show." "You're gonna have to learn your clichés," Crash says. Same thing applies if you ever decide to write a column about inexpensive wine. Have your responses down as you're making your pitch for fame and fortune.

When you get "What's your favorite wine?" Answer: "Whatever's open."

When you get "How many bottles do you have open at a time?" Answer: "Enough."

When you get "Sir, what do you think you're doing?" Answer: You're usually pouring glasses for yourself at a wine tasting, which is unfortunately considered poor form. Simply apologize. Then point across the room, exclaim, "Is that Robert Parker over there?" and snag the bottle when no one's looking.

However, "So, what do you know about that 'Two Buck Chuck' stuff?" was a question I couldn't answer. So, for the sake of science as well as your writing career, I'll take one for the team…

"Two Buck Chuck" is the nickname for Charles Shaw wines. These wines are exclusively distributed at Trader Joe's markets. (Pleasepleasepleaseplease open one in Northern Kentucky!) In California, where Shaw wines are produced, you can buy them for $1.99 a bottle. Elsewhere, depending on taxes, you'll likely find three-or-four buck Chuck.

There's nothing magical about this wine. The genesis of the low cost, according to the Trader Joe's website, "began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier." Said supplier, Bronco Wineries (connected with Franzia), was indicted on federal fraud charges and paid a $2.5 million fine in the early 90's for misrepresenting cheaper grapes as premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Bronco's bucked back with a vengeance, however -- as Charles Shaw has become one of the best selling wines in the United States.

So, how's it taste? Shaw wines have won major awards in national competitions, but I suppose I'm not enough of a connoisseur to understand why. I will say that they're generally solid, uncomplicated wines you can drink easily enough with food, but often have enough flavor to drink on their own. In other words, for a sluggable, you're talking about a decent bottle that's cheaper than either Boone's Farm or Night Train. Here's the skinny on Shaw's latest releases:

Charles Shaw 2006 Chardonnay -- In 2007, Charles Shaw's '05 chard won "Best in Class" and "Best in California" awards, but the '06 probably won't follow in its footsteps. That certainly doesn't mean that this is a poor wine. Although it's a California chard, it's not at all buttery, and only slightly oaky. The nose is light with some interesting peach scents. It's got a crisp taste with some mineral flavor and is a little peachy, like an inexpensive white burgundy. You might also notice some flavors of bubblegum in there somewhere. Finish is medium -- it's got a little weight at the end. A very decent, straight-up, inoffensive chardonnay for drinking alone or with picnic food, baked fish, or chicken dishes

Charles Shaw 2005 Merlot -- Trader Joe's patrons either skipped Sideways a few years ago or knew better than to pay attention to the "f'n merlot" rant. The Charles Shaw merlot is their top seller. I mentioned during Wine School the need to decant young and/or inexpensive wines. Here's another case in point. If you try to drink this right after popping the cork, you're going to get hit with a snootful of alcohol fumes. However, after a chance to sit and open up for a bit, it turns into a decent little quaff. The nose has a plum scent, almost like a syrah. The body is relatively light for a merlot. It's easy to drink, with some dark berry flavor, but it's not as rich as many merlots. The finish starts fruity, but then tannin kicks in and dries it out. With usual merlot foods like pork or grilled veggies, it would likely be very decent.

Charles Shaw 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Again, another wine that you're going to need to decant before you drink. Straight out of the bottle, lighter fluid and berries. But after breathing for a good long while, it edges towards something a little more interesting. A little chocolate and blackberry on the nose. The taste -- well, this may be the least dry Cab I've ever tasted. There's a lot of fruit and some decent feel, but there's almost no tannin to speak of until the finish. Almost more like a Zinfandel (and knowing the history…hmm…) than a cabernet. I'd recommend this as a wine to have sitting around during a barbecue, or perhaps as your third or fourth bottle of the evening when you're not being choosy. If the latter is your reality, make sure you're stocked up on B-12, ibuprofen, Gatorade, and ginger ale.

Charles Shaw 2006 Sauvignon Blanc -- The big surprise of the bunch. In my experience, most "super-value" Sauvignon Blancs are either weak little wines or acidic enough to practically melt the bottle they're stored in -- not to mention your tongue and the underside of your jaw. The Shaw is neither. The nose is nicely fruity and approachable. The taste is a blend of honey and grapefruit. I'd almost describe it as "Viognier Lite." The finish isn't as crisp as a lot of SB's, although there's enough residual acidity to make it refreshing. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I agreed that buying a case or two each summer to have as everyday sluggables wouldn't be a bad idea. A rock-solid pool wine, although I'd probably look elsewhere for food pairings, since there are so many good food-friendly Sauvignon Blancs at only a dollar or two more.

Charles Shaw also started producing Shiraz and Valdiguie. The latter is a clone of Gamay grown in California. I haven't tried either. So, if you have, please chime in.

Remember to temper your expectations. If you're going to pick up wine that's this inexpensive, don't think. You can only hurt the ballclub.