Exceptional Vintage

A Stillwater wine bar reveals the real reason wine is good for you

Cesare's Wine Bar
102 S. Second St., Stillwater

You can't open a major publication these days without getting a sharp pop in the eye from some article hyping some new study that demonstrates how people who drink wine have healthier hearts and fewer strokes; live longer, less stressful lives; and, generally, awaken every day to the sound of angels trilling while their doe-eyed, doting romantic companions check the financial pages to see how much wealth the household has concentrated in the night. And so, wine sales shoot up. And so, wine bars open. And so, that most piteous of accursed wretches, the local wine and restaurant critic, finds her e-mail box nearly as full with queries about what to drink to live forever as she does with offers to extend body parts she does not possess.

Of course, I can't help but be suspicious of all these studies. For instance, let us consider several meals and their attendant beverages:

Richard Fleischman

Meal, with coffee: At your desk, the night black and glittering on the other side of the office windows, fear for your job rising in your throat till you know how electric eels feel.

Meal, with Mountain Dew: In the cab of your truck, hurtling toward Indiana at sunrise, while your wife, a thousand miles distant, demands to know what your seven-year-old has done with the BB gun.

Meal, with water: Wishing the other monks would lighten up.

Meal, with milk-thistle tea: Staring listlessly at your plate of sprouts, wishing they would sprout along and grow into something interesting, like steaks.

Meal, with Kool-Aid: Plotting how many sticks of Juicy Fruit and/or Camel Lights you can sneak out of Mom's purse when the phone rings.

And of course, Meal, with wine: Across the table from people you love, or, at least, don't much want to stick a carving fork into, drawn out over a few hours, and including both laughter and conversation that allows you to untangle your thoughts, unburden your soul, and both problem-solve and appreciate the various levels of your life.

Now, for me, only one question remains: What were all of you Johnny-come-latelys doing with your days before you decided to have a glass of wine and live a little? Were you just crouched in your basements, clutching, white-knuckled, your Prevention magazines, staving off death with the very force of your pop-eyed terror? I mean, did you ever have any fun? I recently read that pharmaceutical companies are hoping to be able to get the beneficial properties of wine into a pill, so that you can do an end-run around all that pleasure, relaxation, and conversation, and get right to what really matters: eating pills so you can work harder and earn more, so you can afford more pills.

Me, I think I'll continue to choose pleasure as the reason to drink wine, especially now that I've rifled through the joyful medicine cabinet of Cesare's Wine Bar in Stillwater. Now, Cesare's opened about a year ago, and has a wine program so big and so well thought-through it boggles the imagination. The list features more than 400 bottles, relies on a generous system of four-glasses-to-the-bottle glass-pours (instead of the standard five), and has a terrifically big-hearted policy of opening any under-$80 bottle on the list if you'll buy two glasses of it (and pay half the total bottle price). Furthermore, there are lots of cheap wines for folks on a budget (try the unusual, muscular, plum-coffee of Argentinian wine Bonarda from Alamos for $19), as well as amazing opportunities for wine geeks, such as the "verticals," in which you can get three bottles of the same wine from different vintages. For example, $100 gets you bottles of Domaine Sainte-Anne, a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages from Saint Gervais, from the years 1996, 1998, and 1999. Try them all together, and you should learn things about the differences between those Côtes-du-Rhône vintages that other people can just read about. Try them all together and drop me a postcard--I am intensely curious.

For wine folks who were interested in wine before wine was the new shark cartilage, this wine list answers questions you didn't even know you had. Questions like, Is there an American Albariño? Yes! From Havens, it costs $32, and is fairly thin, yet fragrant with the smell of almonds. Can a Malbec cost $108? Yes! (Again, drop me a postcard.) Is there any possible way I can demonstrate my knowledge of how to pronounce the Austrian grape Grüner Veltliner when there are actual members of the opposite sex around? Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes! (It's groon-er felt-leener, iffin' you were wondering.)

In short, this place has the kind of wine program that could only have been put together by people who care truly, madly, and deeply about wine, and a little digging has revealed that this is so. I talked on the phone to one of the four owners of the place for this story, and it turns out that these four owners are two married couples, Richard Lay and Kirsten Lysne, and Robert and Leslie Alexander. The Alexanders had been involved in the wine business, and the two couples met when they all became leaders in the local chapter of the national Slow Food movement, a group dedicated to old-style food ways, which includes everything from artisanal, small-batch cheeses to preserving the kinds of livestock, fruits, and vegetables that our grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents ate, not the kind currently best suited for factory farming.

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