Asked and Answered

What's the wallaby on the label of that shiraz trying to tell you? What about the syrah label featuring a generic chateau? Dear Dara answers all your peskiest wine questions.

Other bottles go bad with age. "Restaurants are the worst offenders," says Peters. "Fresh little whites are meant to be drunk young. It drives me crazy when you get an old, flat Albariño and then some guy shows up and tells me it's supposed to be this way and it's lovely. Another thing that drives me crazy is when you go into a restaurant and they have this thick tome of wines, wines you know they can't possibly turn, and it's full of fresh little whites. If you can't [sell] the wine, make a decision to put things on your list you can age. Tru, in Chicago, has multiple vintages that go back, but it's white Burgundy, which can age, not things that have a shorter shelf life like Ruedas, Albariños, and Picpoul de Pinet.

Peters's biggest pet peeve is vintage charts. "I want to take people's little vintage cards out of their hand and scrunch them up and put them in the garbage," she says. "I'll be at a table with someone considering which Albariño to get, and they get out their little vintage chart. Oh, not the '05, the '03 was a much better vintage. The key word? Was. At this point in the game it doesn't matter." Better, she says, is to get to know a producer: "A quality producer is more important than vintage."

Dear Dara,

Baffled here again. So where are my shortcuts? My Rosetta stone? All you've done is fill me with fear: about shady wine shop practices, old Albariños, and worse. A pox on your house!

—Baffled and Now Also Despairing in Minneapolis

Dear Baffled,

Actually, I do have a shortcut for you. Well, two shortcuts. One is to cultivate a relationship with a wine clerk in a good store. And by a good store I mean one staffed by people who have tasted the wines. There are tons here in the Twin Cities, and I hate to make a list for fear of leaving someone out, but even if you know nothing about wine, a good question to weed out bad stores might be, "Can you recommend something to go with Thai takeout?" Or pizza. If they can't find something under $15 to recommend for one of those, or if you can't find someone to speak with at all, find another store.

The other trick isn't much of a trick at all, it's simply to get to know a producer. Think of the overwhelming wine shop as your first day in a new school: even the shyest kid meets the person sitting next to her, and then you have a friend, then you meet another one, and there are two friends...the next thing you know you're bored because you know everyone in your school and can't wait to move on or at least go to a party where there will be some new faces. So, your goal is to make at least one face friendly.

The following wineries meet my three criteria of being artisanal; with good websites to tell you in detail about the wines, the land they come from, the actual winemakers and such; and are also well represented here in the Twin Cities. For French wines, try Rhone producers M. Chapoutier (www.chapoutier.com) or Chateau de Beaucastel (www.beaucastel.com), both critically well regarded and offering wines at every price point.

For German and Austrian wines, you can actually read the entire Terry Thiese catalog online, through his section on the Michael Skurnik website (www.skurnikwines.com). This thing is no mere catalog; it's a personal, literary, longwinded, and utterly charming take on various vineyards and Thiese's journey. If you just read Thiese's catalog you'll know more about German wines (and some others) than most anyone in town save a few wine pros.

For American wines that never disappoint, are well priced, well represented in both Twin Cities restaurants and liquor stores, and have good websites, my super-short list would be: Trefethen Vineyards (www.trefethen.com), Cline Cellars (www.clinecellars.com); Edmeades (www.edmeades.com); Qupé Wine Cellars (pronounced koo-pay; www.qupe.com); and Flowers Vineyard & Winery (www.flowerswinery.com).

Write those names on a card, put the card in your wallet, order them when you see them, check the websites when you can, and I think you will find yourself a happier, less baffled wine lover in about a year. No tasting, no thinking, no fuss, no muss, just a card in your wallet and a year. Try it. Let me know if it works for you.

Until we meet again, I'll leave you with this thought: Did you ever chance upon someone who showed all her bad qualities in the first minute, and you hated her, but years later found that those same obnoxious qualities were seamless extensions of the very good qualities you had grown to adore?

I have a lot of friends like this. One is a heart-on-his sleeve whiner who proved to be an uncannily accurate judge on all points interpersonal; another seemed at first to be just a brusque critic, but later turned out to be a realist and the only one I want in my corner during a crisis. Anyway, you get the idea. I think that wine is very much like this: When you first approach it, the bad points are all you see. The number of wines, the foreign geography, the subtle similarities and differences, the technical jargon, the tricks, the anarchy, the snob appeal—these annoying qualities are all right on the surface, and almost each is an extension of something attractive, when you get to know it better.

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