Asked and Answered: Dara Answers All Your Peskiest Wine Questions.
I can hardly believe it, but we are today celebrating the sixth anniversary of Wine & Dine. I know sixth anniversaries don't usually get a lot of fireworks and silver loving cups, but this particular sixth anniversary is sentimental for me, because we have here the writings of San Francisco-based wine critic Tim Teichgraeber, the person who introduced me to wine as something dynamic, historical, and interesting—and not just stuff old rich people went on too much about.
I can't remember exactly how it all started, but I do know it began, as so many things do, in the back of the 7th St. Entry after a show, when you find you are having one of those Minneapolis days where the city is almost too small to sustain believability. I had already been a restaurant critic for a few years, and had begun to regard wine lists with suspicion: What was I not understanding about what they said? I felt that so much in restaurants conveyed bucketfuls of meaning, from the hand towels in the bathroom to the font on the menu, but the wine lists were largely unclear to me.
Sure, there were short ones and cheap ones and ones that went on for days, but what did they mean, and what were other people reading on them that was invisible to me? With such things in the back of my head, I was introduced one smoky night to Tim, who was then writing wine reviews for the Pulse. We discovered we lived not 200 feet from one another and had half a dozen friends in common. He mentioned he would be tasting a case of wines the next day; while he would need privacy during the day in order to take notes, I was welcome to drop by in the evening to taste them all.
Everything he said sounded completely mad: He was going to taste a case of wine? In a day? And take notes? I spent the next day, a Sunday, wrestling with plaster and taping drywall seams in my house. And though I tried to bow out 10 times, there's only so much protest you can muster when your furniture is on the porch and a friendly glass of wine awaits a few doors down. I do remember showing up with so much plaster on my jeans I couldn't sit down on civilized furniture.
Which was fine, as Tim didn't have any. Tim was rather punk-rock in those days, especially for an attorney. He had been in the band Gneissmaker, and his apartment was one of those $2-couches-and-state-of-the-art-speakers boy apartments. I remember Tim cursing his roommate's slovenliness and checking on the Riedel stemware drying in the sink. He explained to me that he had special stemware for his wine, and special washing-up liquid for his stemware, and that there were some who believed good glassware should not be touched by soap, and that he had to keep his Riedel in cardboard, lest his roommate use and destroy it. I thought he was insane; I thought he was Felix Unger, minus the comedy.
Tim led me in a quick tasting through his assembled wines, about which I remember absolutely nothing, except that they were red. We dumped them in the sink, and I went home that night pretty sure I had met the most eccentric member of my generation.
However, deep within me something must have stirred—or it might have just been laziness. I had no livable living space in my house, and was perfectly happy to spend half a dozen afternoons over the last bit of summer tagging along behind Tim as he went to various private tastings, listening to things he said about wine, and observing the group dynamics of industry wine tasters. I was fully convinced that never had a group of people been so entirely, brimmingly, laughably full of it. The silly things they said—what were these anonymous red fruits? It sounded like something you found in the bottom of the Frankenberry box.
At the time, in the late 1990s, New Zealand whites were either a new thing or a newly popular thing, and we encountered many. People often claimed the wines smelled of lychee, and I thought they were mad, crazy, delusional. I knew what lychees smelled like, from having eaten them in various Asian restaurants, and I knew what wine smelled like, and it didn't smell like lychees. It smelled like wine, and maybe, if you pushed it, a little bit like something that had been cleaned with a lemony substance. No lychees, no lime, no petrol, whatever that was, no ginger, no vanilla, nope, nope, nope.
These people, I thought. These are the most absurd social gatherings ever. They are to the Emperor's New Clothes as the sun is to a match's flame: They all decide something and it gets echoed the world over and billions are spent, careers are made, all on nothing.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, on perhaps my 30th white, it came rushing in, unexpected and unbidden: Hot damn, lychees! There were lychees in that pale glass! In moments all the rest followed: limes, vanilla, lemon rind...I was changed. I saw, or, rather, smelled and tasted, life in a whole new way.
His work done, Tim moved to San Francisco. Years later, I told him my idea of a Gen-X, Gen-Y, millennial-generation-directed wine publication, something for people who were very bright and had a lot of taste, but who didn't understand wine jargon, who wouldn't pick up a copy of Wine Spectator, who were skeptical, thrifty, but knew a good thing when they tasted it. Tim told me I was a good kid, if dim, and to call him if it worked out.
Lo and behold, it did! It is to my utter delight that I get to introduce a wealth of Tim's critical picks of some of the best wines available in Minnesota. I couldn't be more pleased. Not only is Tim a brilliant drinker of wine—he has one of those super-memories for it that allows him to describe bottles he tasted once, years ago—he's also been everywhere and has a wicked bullshit detector, a rare combination of qualities. This year we got him to share with us his picks among Chardonnays, Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, exotic whites, wines for Thanksgiving and for your boss, and wines from Spain, Chile, and Argentina. But if Tim is providing the critical picks, I had to ask, what is there for me to do?
I thought that this year I would go back and address all those Emperor's New Clothes issues that loomed so large for me before my lychee moment. (And my subsequent years of study, but let's gloss over that because it's not very attractive.) In any event, I called up my friends in food and wine both in Minnesota and around the country and asked, "What is it you've always wanted to know about wine, but have been afraid to ask? What is it wine publications fail to tell you?"
These are all bright people who enjoy wine and have been dealing with the stuff on an all-but-daily basis for years, and they had questions that were often the very best kind: deceptively basic. Why is so much good cheap wine Australian? What happens to bad wine? Why do bottles with labels that say the same thing taste so different, and why do different bottles taste the same? Is there any way to cut through the palaver?
We like to think there is, and that this is it. As always, let us know what you think, and if we didn't pull it off this year, we'll try again for lucky number seven.
I have one question for you: Why is wine so goddamn hard? And why doesn't it ever get any easier?
If a beer says it's an IPA, even if I've never had it before, I know what I'm getting. If a steak is a ribeye, even if it's one individual cow that's unlike every other cow on earth, I know what I'm getting. But if a wine bottle says Chardonnay or if it says Marlborough, you don't know what's in there—it could be anything, and totally different from the last bottle you had that said Chardonnay or Marlborough. I've been drinking wine for 15 years and it still seems so hard.
I never seem to drink the same bottle of wine twice. Never. Ever. Unless it's something like Veuve Cliquot and that is so consistent it seems like a totally different thing. And if I do find something I like in the liquor store or on a wine list, by the time I go back it's vanished, it's totally different than it was, or I can't remember what it is because it sits there in the middle of half a dozen sound-alikes or look-alikes.
It doesn't help when you go into a liquor store. Why do they have 2,000 wines? There's no way they're selling all 2,000, is there? Wouldn't they do better if they had fewer wines, or if they were grouped differently? I go to the paper-towel aisle at Target and if I stick out my hand it comes back with paper towels, and they're more or less going to do what I need them to do and they more or less cost the same. I stick out my hand in any given wine aisle, and I could end up spending $100, or $4, or $30. I could end up with a headache or the best thing I've ever drank in my life, and it has nothing to do with price, or how the bottle looks, or anything.
Speaking of which, all the bottles look the same. All the labels read the same. It's as if when you went to the bookstore they packaged all the crappy mysteries the same as the classic literature, so instead of some books having a big bloody knife on them and others being Anna Karenina with a big black-and-white Tolstoy beard-face picture, they just all looked exactly, exactly the same. Every wine has a nice bottle, a beautiful label, a nice story on the back about some vineyard and some family, they all use the same words, "subtle explosions of soft fruit, notes of this and finish of that." You go into the bookstore, you pick up a copy of Anna Karenina, and it just about screams at you: This is literature, asshole! If you can't tell this is literature, go back to the bloody-knife section!
Every wine experience I've ever had goes like this: I am in a place where I am absolutely, positively going to do nothing else but buy wine. Do I feel happy about this leisure transaction that's part of my enjoyment of life? Never. I feel happy about receiving the wine, but never, ever, ever about ordering it. So I look over the wine list, or the store shelf, I read the name of someplace, some string of information, and then I ask either a waiter or the nearest store employee, "Can you recommend a reasonable bottle of wine?" If I get an answer I can't understand, I just get the second-cheapest by-the-glass wine and call it a day.
Frankly, I don't see how all these different variables—15 percent new oak barrels? 20 percent?—really add up to something different, and I suspect that wine appreciation is an Emperor's New Clothes thing, that it's all made up. Or maybe it's not entirely made up, but it's like finding excessive symbolism in a novel: If you sit around and try really hard to find meaning, you can find some, but maybe it's really only about half of what you think. On the other hand, what if it's all true? I'm a smart guy, I've accomplished much in my life, but I don't have 20 hours a week to study wine, and yet it seems that unless you master the whole thing you're in a tough spot.
Is there any way to make this less hard? Is there any Rosetta Stone, or shortcut, or anything?
—Baffled in Minneapolis
I hear you. When I first heard you, though, I mostly heard your pain. When I started digging into your points, however, I discovered that many of your observations, such as the one about bottles of wine looking the same and tasting different, or looking different and tasting the same, are actually even more astute than you knew. Wine is a world of pirates right now! Well, not all of it, but the budget side of things, the Australian and American under-$15 side of things where so many Gen-X, Gen-Y, and Millennial Generation types drink, with these wines we are really swimming with pirates.
Let's consider the two cases, starting with bottles that look the same, but taste different. This happens all the time. First, there are the sound- or look-alikes, the intentional bad-faith fakes. Just check out the number of wine bottle labels that have hawks, deer, or turning autumn leaves on them. Then there are the winemakers who try to make the field hazy by using a well-known wine word, such as Napa, which describes an actual place, and turning into a brand name, like Napa Ridge. The courts just put an end to that particular one, but piggybacking, bad-faith behavior is just a part of life, and here we have some.
How to avoid it? You can't, really, without learning a lot, unless you stick to good restaurants and good wine stores, which should weed out a lot of that for you. (A good wine store is one where the employees have tasted many, or, ideally, all of the wines on hand, and can answer a question like, "What's the difference between Napa Valley and Napa Ridge?")
Second, there is the obvious change in vintage, which is what people mean by "good vintage" or "bad vintage." However, there's also a maxim that runs, "There are no bad vintages, just bad winemakers." There are all kinds of things a winemaker can do to adjust the quality of wine in a bad year. They can hand-pick grapes so they select clusters that are more evenly ripe, they can sell off the bad grapes to bulk producers, they can adjust the blend, and more. If you have to choose between a good vintage with a poor winemaker or a good winemaker with a poor vintage, the smart money is on the good winemaker.
Third, there is the less obvious change of ownership that a vineyard or brand may undergo. For instance, a lot of people have used Bonny Doon's Big House Red, Big House White, and Cardinal Zin as default restaurant picks for a few years now, but this summer the brands were sold to the Wine Group, which makes, no kidding, Franzia and Mogen David. (Yes, the one the kids call Mad Dog.) Will the Wine Group change the wine? They'd probably say no, I'd probably say yes, if only by expanding production, which by default means they'll have to pull in new grapes, which means new flavors.
Over the years, various cheap reliables, like Concha y Toro and assorted Ravenswood wines, have changed in the same way, just by getting bigger. Wine isn't like Pepsi, you can't just get more syrup and water and hire more trucks. Change one thing and it all changes. I used to wonder about the 15 percent oak, 2 percent Cabernet Franc thing myself, until a winemaker explained it to me thusly: Would you know the difference between coffee and coffee that had a teaspoon of tomato juice added to it, or coffee that was brewed in a peppermill? It probably wouldn't be off enough for you to say, "That's not coffee!" But it would be off enough for you to say, "What the heck is wrong with this coffee?"
Fourth and least obvious, the mix of wine grapes in any particular bottle can change dramatically without needing any change to the label. For instance, let's say you have a Dara's Ridge California 2005 Pinot Noir. What do you suppose is in there? Pinot Noir grapes grown in the year 2005? Not entirely. A California wine only needs to be made of 75 percent of the grapes in question to be labeled as a single varietal, so it could be only 75 percent Pinot Noir with, say, 25 percent Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, or whatever they have lying around.
Furthermore, this year the U.S. Treasury Department changed vintage rules so that only 85 percent of the grapes in a bottle need be from the year in question to bear a vintage. (This doesn't hold for bottles from "approved viticulture areas," or AVAs, like Sonoma Valley, but it does hold for more vaguely sourced wine, which is most of it.) The Treasury Department did this to level the playing field for Americans with Australia, which has always had loosey-goosey vintage labeling.
So that 2005 Dara's Ridge Pinot Noir could contain 15 percent 2002 Syrah, and 10 percent 2005 Merlot. Now let's make matters worse: One of those bottles gets mailed to Wine Spectator, and they give it a "best buy" award and 90 points; the winemaker then prints up little "shelf-talker" placards for your liquor store to stick on the wine's shelf to catch your eye. Even after all this, they can make the next batch with 25 percent 2005 merlot, the batch after that with Pinot Noir grapes bought 200 miles down the coast and, oh, say 15 percent 2003 Zinfandel. And it will keep popping up over that little shelf-talker and you will buy it every two months until you think you're losing your mind, and clamp your teeth while muttering, It always looks the same, but it always tastes different!
Ironically, trends and the fickle taste of the consumer make this situation even worse. If you plant new vines, it takes about five years for them to make a good amount of fruit. So, if everyone was planting new Merlot vines five years ago (and they were), the new abundance of Merlot grapes might hit the market at just the time that everyone who saw Sideways suddenly decides they despise Merlot and want nothing but Pinot Noir. A winery capable of making 10,000 cases of Pinot Noir and 10,000 cases of Merlot might suddenly become capable of making 12,500 cases of Pinot and 7,500 cases of Merlot. Guess where the missing Merlot went?
Now, many wine-heads will read this and say, As it should be! Merlot is a blending grape, and if it gets pushed into the Pinot Noir and drunk by ignorant Americans who think some kind of prestige attends to drinking single-varietal wine, hooray! Well, I have to agree. I will never forget the time I was at a wine bar with a food professional who insisted to our server that she didn't like "blends," as she called them, only single-varietal wines. If she only knew, she'd have known her single-varietal wine was a blend.
But back to the second part of your question, Baffled: Wines that look different, but taste the same. Can you have the same wine in different bottles? If you had asked me this last year I would have guessed no—but I would have been wrong. I spoke with one wine importer who refused to be named for this story, for fear of losing his clients. "Eighty percent of what's on the shelf in the Australian section is large corporate producers who bottle for different labels," he told me. "And sometimes the same wine for different labels.
"I talked to one wine maker, he told me, 'I can make you whatever you want. You want a Yellow Tail-style? A Rosemount Grenache-Shiraz style? What do you want? Name the wine, we'll make it for you.'" Since the Australian winemaker in question had all the formulas, and collected and managed the exact grapes that went into said brand-name wines, this was no idle boast.
Once you get into a restaurant wine list, things get even worse. Did you ever see a restaurant with its own wine label, say, "Bistro Dara Merlot"? That might well just be a well-known mass-market wine with a specialty label slapped on the bottle. Until now I had always believed the hype about other high-ticket restaurant-only specialty bottlings, the ones that are trumpeted as being the best of the best, simply made in runs too small for the general public. Several of my wine-industry sources told me that they suspect that some of those specialty bottles actually contain inferior wines that would never fetch such prices in the open market.
Are they right? I talked to half a dozen local pros and couldn't get a straight answer, so Baffled, please know not only are you not crazy, but some of the things you feel foolish for not knowing the answer to are in fact questions the brightest minds in the business can't answer. In the pirate seas of today's less expensive wines, sometimes they do all taste and look the same, or different, willy nilly.
Why do the wine bottles have different shapes?
—Noticing Nabobs of Nothingness, but Still Curious
If you think wine is a hassle now, please know that a couple of hundred years ago various governments thought the whole bottled-at-the-chateau idea was itself rife for fraud. So if you wanted wine, you'd have to have your own bottles manufactured and send them to the chateau to be filled and sealed. (Fun fact: Some think that our standard wine-bottle size descends not from any particular big idea, just from the average size of a 19th-century glassblower's exhale.)
The different shapes of wine bottles, and the different colors, have something to do with whim and branding. It was considered attractive to package Chianti in wicker-bottom bottles, for instance, until it wasn't. And it has something to do with practical concerns. You need heavier bottles to counteract the internal pressure generated by Champagne, for instance, and darker bottles to protect age-worthy wines from light, which speeds deterioration. You'll often find wines meant to be drunk young, like rosés or fresh whites, packed in colorless glass, which is both less expensive than dark glass and shows off the wine's color.
Since we're talking fraud, though, please direct some attention to all the rigmarole around the cork. First there's the cork, which almost always has the name of the vineyard printed on it. Then there's a wax or foil seal that protects the cork. And sometimes there may even be an additional paper seal imprinted with government guarantees or tracking numbers. You know what all of this is? It's all the best fraud-protection devices of an earlier time: The seal and printed cork are your guarantee that your wine merchant or restaurant hasn't served someone else your Opus One and topped up the bottle with a box of Franzia.
Of course, none of this fraud protection could have envisioned a world where one wine-making facility would make everyone's wine, but it's interesting to consider that fraud protection has been an issue as long as wine has been sold. Old wine in new bottles indeed!
Why is all the cheap wine Australian? Or, you know what I mean.
—Wondering in Minneapolis
We now have to ask the Libertarians to leave the room, lest they bust various veins in rage. It all started with government. First, in the 1960s, Australia decided it would have not a desert interior, but a green and verdant one—like the British Isles of their historical memory? Dunno. In any event, they started to build dams like crazy, and today three-quarters of the water in Australia goes to irrigation. A 2004 article in the Australian, an Aussie newspaper, said the Aussies use 900 liters of water per person per day, compared to us North Americans, who use 600 liters a day. (I'm guessing they added Canada in to make us feel better, but still.)
Anyhoo, in 1993, to speed up the process of turning their desert interior into a green and verdant vine land, they instituted a tax shelter that, literally, has daily ramifications in the liquor stores of Duluth, Bloomington, and all places in between. The Australian government changed its tax laws so that growers could write off the expense of buying and planting grape vines over the course of four years, instead of over the lifetime of the vines. Since they would be writing off the cost of this buying and planting before the grapes bore fruit, it became a massive loss for tax purposes, and thus sheltered other income. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the actual grape planting really got rolling; between 1997 and 2001 Australia's wine plantings almost doubled.
Meanwhile, the Australian dollar sank. It was super-low when those first cases of Yellow Tail showed up. It was worth 80 of our cents in 1996, sank to 50 cents five years later, and is now about back where it was. It took a few years for the various vines that were planted to come to maturity and start bearing fruit, but they did a few years ago, and here we are. The Australians have more grapes than they know what to do with, so they mess with them, and send them here and to Europe.
Mess with them how? Australian mega-producers also have massive state-of-the-art wine-making facilities (which they had to build once their grape supply doubled) and some engage in what wine traditionalists call "better wine-making through chemistry," manipulations such as using acid or enzymes to enhance fermentations and get deeper fruit extracts, adding sugar to boost alcohol levels, concentrating fruit musts, micro-oxygenation to essentially pre-age the wine, adding color additives like Mega Purple, and various manipulations to get the acid in a wine lowered, and the pH raised.
Then they put them in affordable bottles with critter labels. Ever seen that thing on the Yellow Tail bottle? That's actually not a kangaroo, but a yellow-footed rock wallaby, and its runaway success inspired a zillion critter followers. Look for animals on the labels of Wallaby Creek, Koala Blue, Little Penguin, Thirsty Lizard, and Four Emus, all out of Australia; Monkey Bay from New Zealand; and something called Burrowing Owl from Canada. According to the Nielsen ratings—yes, they do Nielsen ratings of wine—critter labels accounted for $600 million in wine sales last year.
So, government irrigation projects plus tax shelters plus cute animals equals you drowning in affordable, likable Australian critter wine.
Don't think it's always going to be like this. After two years of massive over-supply, the Australians appealed to their government for some kind of financial package to help the suffering farmers, and the government said no dice. Tens of thousands of tons of grapes were left to rot in the fields for the last harvest, and growers across Australia are "mothballing" their grape vines, pruning them back and giving them only the tiniest amount of water so that they won't produce fruit for a few years.
With the grape supply lowered, Australians expect the Australian-wine glut to come to an end sometime in 2007, and we may well look back on the time when all the cheap wine was Australian as a weird historical blip. Right now only half a percent of Australian wines sold in this country retail for more than $15, and Australia is basing its future on getting that number up. If you like cheap and cheerful critter wine, buy it now.
However, if you hate cheap and cheerful critter wine, but enjoy irony, consider this: Australia right now is desperately trying to try to figure out how to be France, with the big-ticket wines, vineyards that sell out their entire production before a bottle is ever filled (ever heard of wine futures?), and such. Meanwhile, France is desperate to figure out how to make a French Yellow Tail, as they have had a wine glut of their own; they've been reduced to turning hundreds of millions of bottles of basic wine into ethanol to fuel cars. Look for cheap French varietal wine experiments in your local liquor store over the next few years, as they attempt to horn in on Australia's territory. What's French for critter? We'll find out.
Why does Surdyk's have so many more Rieslings than everybody else? How do they get those Surdyk's-label Rieslings? Moreover, why is it the selection in wine shops is all so radically different?
—Riesling Lover in Minneapolis
Dear Riesling Lover,
Prohibition haunts us still. You remember Prohibition, right? With the flappers, the speakeasies, and the way alcohol was banned? Well, when Prohibition ended, the government instituted something known as the three-tier system, which was designed to make sure that there could be no monopolies in liquor. The three tiers—the alcohol maker, alcohol middleman (the distributor or importer), and the final alcohol seller (the store)—all had to be separate businesses, and none could be owned by another. This bit of regulation ultimately meant that the wine shop is the freest market there is: Minnesota has some 40-odd wine importers and distributors, as well as a few liquor distributors, and a host of heavy-hitting independent liquor stores.
This means that we have competition—true competition, not the illusion of competition you get in, say, a big-box store where soft-drink makers pay for prime shelf space and invent new products just to keep the other guys from being seen. The three-tier system is what allows our independent liquor stores to have such extensive selections: Surdyk's has more Rieslings because they want to, and no one can stop them or has cared to outbid them. It's the same reason that Haskell's has more Burgundy, Solo Vino and Sam's Wine Shop have more Spanish selections, and Hennepin Lake Liquors has more California stars.
But back to Surdyk's. I talked to Michael Wirzylo, who works the floor at the Nordeast liquor store, and he told me a little more about how it works. The store is the only retailer in Minnesota with the right to buy wines from Terry Thiese, a prominent importer, and from Selbach-Oster, a German estate and negociant. (Negociant means a seller and packager of other estates' wines.) In sum, Surdyk's is the exclusive Minnesota retail (but not restaurant) seller of many of Germany's preeminent wines.
Of course, in exchange for these exclusive rights, the store must buy a certain amount of wine. Another sort of exclusive is arranged when the owner of a restaurant or wine shop finds an obscure wine, a rare one, or simply a wine not represented locally, and arranges for an importer to bring it in. These two sorts of exclusives, based on either volume and contracts or unusual taste, are why you, Baffled, never see the same wine twice: There literally are wines that are found just here, or just there. Comparing the wine lists, at, say Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and La Belle Vie is a good example, as both have many exclusive wines found in no local retail store, wines derived from the twin streams of their taste and contractual negotiations.
As for Surdyk's private-label Riesling, it's made for the store as a courtesy by the importer Martin Skurnik, who does so much business with Surdyk's it's worth his while.
Why Surdyk's likes Rieslings enough to go to all this trouble is another story. "There are so many of those things, the same wines masquerading under different labels, the same juice in different bottles, that it doesn't appeal to people who really care about wine," says Wirzylo. "However, if you are interested in artisanal items, artisanal foods and such, and concerned about going local, about wine that has a history and a place, then German Riesling is the most affordable example of that wine type. Where else can you get something picked by hand, from a single site, and costing, for a Kabinett Riesling, between $10 and $20? If you wanted a similar Cabernet [Sauvignon] that fit that description— grown from a single vineyard, exhibiting qualities of terroir, handpicked—you'd pay three to five times more."
Surdyk's is not the only local store to have such contracts. Haskell's, MGM Liquors, the wine shop at Buon Giorno Italia in Lilydale, and many others all have their own exclusives. This is why real wine obsessives shop at several stores. The legacy of Prohibition, the three-tier system, and a world of true competition without monopolies mean that it's actually impossible for one store to have it all.
Hey, did you forget about me? Seriously, they don't sell all 2,000 wines in the store, do they?
—Baffled in Minneapolis
Oh, Dear Baffled,
I know where you're coming from. We are all so used to the wicked ways of retail, the way the produce in the supermarket is a loss generator set out to lure you in to the more profitable regions, the couture fashion shows put on with the goal not of selling clothing, but of generating sales of plastic sunglasses and perfume. I know where you're coming from, but while there are plenty of shady practices in wine stores, having aisles of decoy wines is not one of them.
I called up one of the Twin Cities' favorite mom-and-pop wine stores, Sutler's in Stillwater, and talked to Bill Abrahamson, the store's wine buyer, about the whys and wherefores of large inventories. "Like any other person selling anything, inventory has a cost," Abrahamson told me. "And we really do have the wines to sell, and not for any other reason. Here we've got about 10,000 square feet and 2,500 labels, and I'm amazed every single day people come in, "Do you have X, Y, or Z"? and I have to say, 'No, but I have this and that and this.' If someone comes in and wants a Bandol Rosé, a Saumur red, a Cab-Shiraz from Victoria, I have to have one. I might not have the specific one they ask for, but I have a good choice."
Are people really that specific, they want a Cab-Shiraz from Victoria? "They sure are," Abrahamson says. "We're up against all the big-box stores out here, and they've changed the wine business. You go into your Costcos, Sam's Clubs, and such—they use Nielsen ratings to pick the top-selling wines, and then they discount those to a point [where] we can't compete. But [when] you shop at those stores, it's the wine equivalent of the top-rated Nielsen TV shows—predictable, and you deserve what you get. For me, for people who shop here, it's much more. I don't know how many years I have on the planet, but I know there is a world of untried wine choices waiting for me, and I want choices, good choices.
"It's very unromantic, the way this industry is going," Abrahamson continues. "It's heading to this place where we're selling widgets instead of beautiful craft wines and beers. But there are still people who value unique items, so there's a reason for us to carry red wines from Austria, Lustau Sherries, and so forth."
Hey! What was that you said about shady practices in wine stores? Like what?
—Baffled in Minneapolis
Oh, here are a few. Either mistakenly or intentionally pinning positive reviews to wine bins referring to vintages, vineyards, or even wines that are entirely different from the contents of the bin. When I was speaking to various wine-world people for this story, I kept hearing about the great stranglehold that big-box stores are getting on suburban wine consumers, so I spent a day in the ritzy western suburbs checking out places like Costco and Sam's Club. Yes, it was scarring and horrible, thanks for asking. And no, I don't know whether the pumpkins piled in front of Wal-Mart come from China; I confined myself to the wine sections.
While I did find some amazing prices, particularly on liquor, I was amazed by how many pitfalls a naive wine shopper could fall into in those stores. There were plenty of instances where I saw a positive review and high score appended to a bin—but the review was for the winery's well-known Sauvignon Blanc, and the bin held sour and terrible Pinot Noir. There were also things that sounded like amazing deals but weren't, and here I'm thinking of sound-alike lesser wines by well-known wineries.
(My visit to Costco was enlivened considerably by eavesdropping. There was a creakingly old, white-haired little Q-tip of a lady who toddled up to a youngish pair of men and asked, "Do you know where the Ménage a Trois is?" They couldn't help her locate the wine from California, but they did a yeoman's job turning pink and shaking instead of laughing.)
Speaking of disreputable, there are also some independently owned wine shops that buy importer's garbage—mostly wines that have aged past their drinkability, or are bad vintages soon to be supplanted by good ones. Which stores? Disreputable ones. Why won't I tell you who they are? Because I don't want to get myself sued, and I know that their response would be that they are buying smart values; one person's spoiled wine is another's mature bargain. I can tell you that if you're a typical Minneapolis or St. Paul wine shopper who goes to reputable stores, you're not shopping there.
A final shady practice: Sometimes the people who come to assist you in the aisles are not store employees but work for a wine distributor, and are working the store for free at the request of the store management. One well-known Uptown liquor store is notorious for this practice, which is partly why they have such low prices. I'm of 10 minds about this: The penny-pinching part of me loves the low prices that result from uncompensated labor, but then the communist part of me rebels against unpaid work, and after that the suspicious part of my brain kicks in and wonders whether the wine such people recommend is really the best pick, or just the wine the distributor most wants moved—and do they want it moved because they love it or because it's getting old and they need space in the warehouse? On the eighth hand, if you ask a Spanish wine specialist for a Champagne recommendation, what are they going to do? They have to recommend a competitor's wine, and in such an instance you simply get a well-informed opinion. Anyway, distributors can often be found in store aisles, and when they are you must treat them like any other human being: full of unknowable motives, and good and bad because of that.
What happens to bad wine? Do they just dump it in a big Prohibition-style pit somewhere, and break it with sledgehammers, or what?
—Curious in St. Paul
I had no idea at all on this one. So I called up Annette Peters, the import director at World Class Wines, a woman whose little finger knows more about wine than most whole sommeliers.
"I can think of a classic example that happened in Chicago," Peters told me. "A wine was tasted [from a barrel] at the winery, and it was great. But there was a mistake made in the actual bottling (the whole point of preparing wine is to prepare it for the bottle), and it was bottled without proper oxygenation. So, even though the fruit was sound, the wine was sound [initially], it had a problem called reduction, and was terrible. What followed were months of deliberation; finally the wine was destroyed."
Not by smashing with sledgehammers, but by unceremoniously being dumped down a sink, and the bottles recycled. In such a situation the winery absorbs the costs, which is in their best interests, because they don't want their bad wine out there stinking up their good name.
In the case of individual bottles that are corked, which means contaminated with a moldy-smelling compound called TCA that comes from some corks, those bottles can be returned by wine shops or restaurants to the distributor, who eats the cost as a part of doing business. (Never feel bad for returning a corked bottle at a restaurant for just this reason.)
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."
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
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.
The overwhelming number of wines, of course, is exactly what you adore about wine once you master some of it—your sea of nonsense words is a Bordeaux lover's endless, delicious smorgasbord. Your current dislike of the lack of correspondence between price and value may turn to glee when you discover a great bargain. Snob appeal is the dark side of desirable commodities. And so on.
When I spoke with Michael Wirzylo, at Surdyk's, he gave me his take on it. "Wine is interesting because it defies so much of conventional wisdom in America," Wirzylo told me. "It doesn't follow brand identification. Even if there's a golden wallaby today, it may not mean the same in a decade. There's also a great cross-current in American wine culture that acts at cross-purposes to itself: There's a desire to be more European in our consumptive practices, but also a desire to have it demystified, democratized, which is in some ways anti-European. This makes wine a pretty lively thing to be interested in—elite critics or elite individuals do not hold all the cards."
As they do in, say, Hollywood film production. There's never only King Kong remakes or Julia Roberts vehicles, there's never a forced diet of sweet pablum; instead there is always the option for something never-tasted, something made by an anonymous farmer, far far away.
"It's both an artisanal and a technological item too," continued Wirzylo. "It relies on a human hand and nature to make, but also relies on the human hand to sell. It passes through many hands, through many passions, through the legacy of prohibition, language barriers, and a million things. That's what makes it so compelling."
Finally, dear Baffled, if you're wondering why I only provided you with French, German, and American shortcuts, snubbing South America, Spain, Australia, Italy, and everywhere else, it was only because my goal here wasn't to add more fuel to the fire. I merely wanted to give you a place to start. If you go the route of either befriending a local wine clerk or working with those vineyards for a year or two, wine will get less hard. You will suddenly start to see the same bottle twice, you will know what is in it, you will find a rock to stand on, and the pirates won't get you.
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