Wine can be difficult. It comes into the room all puffed up and scholarly like your tweedy cousin who graduated from Yale and yammers endlessly about geography, horticulture, technique, and all the rest.
Shut up, Yale cousin. Nobody likes you or your sweaters. What most people want is something good in their mouths with the added benefit of a buzz. And though craft beer and cocktails are having their day, wine is about to rise again.
Brie Roland is the "wine whisperer" at the new and very trendy St. Genevieve, where wine takes center stage. Bill Summerville, the former sommelier at the late La Belle Vie, has a name so recognizable in local food circles that he's practically his own brand.
I asked them both how we, the less learned, can joyously grab wine by the lapels and make it work for us, instead of the other way around:
If you had only one hour to convert a wine hater or neophyte, how would you go about doing it?
Summerville: Think of it like sex with a new partner. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes it's a good fit right away, sometimes it's a learning curve. Yes, you have to pay attention, but ultimately that person is going to have to convince themselves if they like it. But I'd say if you have any sense of curiosity, wine shouldn't be intimidating. It should be a path of discovery. An adventure. Read a little. Taste a lot. And take notes.
Roland: For me, it's all about food and wine pairings. I used to say, "I don't like white wine," until someone sat me down and made me eat mussels with Muscadet. Everyone needs to eat, so it's figuring out how to have that mind-melting experience. It's when these two things are really singing and you're having a visceral experience.
When you walk into a wine shop, you're confused and intimidated, like you've been dropped in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. Where should a person even begin?
Summerville: There's probably no way around doing a little reading or research beforehand. If you go into an art museum and walk around without knowing anything about the art, your experience is probably going to be around a three or a four. I mean, what the hell does modern art even mean? Or, it would be like watching football without knowing the rules. Try The Wine Bible, Wine for Dummies, or Wine Folly, for their regular English style. Because reading about wine can be boring even for someone like me.
Roland: First, take a deep breath. Ultimately, it's an agricultural product. It's the most complicated grape juice ever, so don't go it alone. We have an amazing representation of really hardworking, really down-to-earth wine buyers. So find out which wine store is closest to you, then seek out the buyer, and don't be afraid of asking questions. I have to be a detective when figuring out what people like to drink. I have to figure out why they like it, and then stay within those parameters. Sign up for newsletters at the wine shop. And do not buy based on the label. Some of them are cute, yes, and some of them are even good, but that shouldn't be a deciding factor.
Why do you think wine has taken a back seat to cocktails and beer in recent years?
Summerville: Beer is very democratic, because it's cheap. If you're a guy, you're probably going to start drinking with Budweiser. It's fizzy, it has alcohol, and it's good. Your buddy doesn't hand you a glass of cab and say, "Here. Let's get drunk." With beer, you're not taking a risk, because if you order one, it's probably always going to be good. Wine, with its tannins and tartness and ageability, is something that takes a long time to get to know. It's something you have to ease yourself into. It took me a long time. But I can relate, because when I go to Tilia and see all the taps, I don't know what the fuck those all are either. And cocktails are cool. Everyone wants to wear a vest and a mustache.
Roland: Wine is viewed as a very spendy product, and cocktails and beer seem a little more approachable, so it's all about democratization. But people's palates are being primed with really hoppy IPAs, for instance, so I think people are primed to get back into wine. Good wine doesn't have to be expensive. And maybe when it is a little expensive, and you know about the winemaker and region, and the weather is terrible but they eek out this wine and it's beautiful, it's easier to understand the price. Also, the taproom boom in Minnesota is a bright and shiny new thing, so it's about getting used to that and then saying, "Okay, how can I take my love of beer and cocktails, and that craftsman quality that I love, and start applying it to wine?" You can really geek out about that. It can be a really childlike exploration. Wine is not a pocket square and a tie. You can talk about wines like they're members of a band.
What is it about wine that engages you?
Roland: It's all about the stories. I'm an actor, and it's kind of an empathy thing. I like to get into other people's worlds and find out what makes them tick. Wine is like a liquid representation of who [the winemakers] are and what makes them tick. It's also all about making memories. Your olfactory senses are intrinsically linked to memory, so when you're sharing a bottle of wine, and then having it again, you're dredging up memories. And for me that's just a super romantic, beautiful, poetic thing.
What is your current affordable (under $30) wine crush?
Summerville: Marcel Lapierre Morgon, any vintage you can find. This can be some of the most pleasurable wine anywhere. The grape is Gamay. These wines are the perfect combination of cerebral and sensual. Runs about $29 at South Lyndale — not inexpensive exactly, but you get what you pay for.
Roland: Maison Angelot (producer), 2011 Mondeuse (grape variety), Bugey (subregion a.k.a. AOC), France. Imported by Charles Neal, $15-$20 retail. Can most likely be found at Zipps or South Lyndale. Light-medium bodied, fruit driven, just enough earth for balance. Extremely quaffable (wine speak for "easy drinking"). Great with food.
South Lyndale Liquors
Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
2618 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis