I have this recurring dream. It's almost mid-day. We wake up late, and haven't yet eaten. So after stopping at a tiny charcuterie for some sausages, marinated olives, a round of local bread – tasting of freshly risen dough, crusted on the outside, silky on the inside – and a bottle of wine, we follow a winding brook at the foot of a steep hill outside the village, in search of a table in the sky.
The residual morning chill is still sharp in the air as our shoes crunch over some loose, schistous rocks, but we quickly begin to warm as we steady our footing, making headway up the slope. The landscape is a primeval mix of twisted scrub, giving off resiny, herby smells as we brush against them, along with lethal, gigantic sized agaves shooting up their thirty foot spikes.
Finally, the passing brook leads us to a small pool. We feel like jumping in, but when we dip our hands into it we're almost shocked by the stinging cold. So tucking our pack behind a rock and weighting our bottle beneath the water, we head off around a bend to catch a fuller view of the civilization below. The sun is now just post meridian, beginning to bathe the town’s distant red roofs and winding streets in swaths of brick and gold, and beyond it the earth appears to rise and dip with misshapen squares of scattered farms and homesteads, separated by taupe toned rock walls making lines like a Navajo blanket. Imbued by the entire fantasy, I look at my smiling partner and whisper those three magic words…
Shall we eat?
And if I'm not yet snapped back into reality by a ringing phone or knock at the door, this is where the dream really starts to cook. The garlic and spiced sausages jolt the palate, and the bread cracks and flakes; but it's the steely cold wine – which is red (isn't real wine red?) – that really gets me. Since we're shooting it directly from the bottle, we're not exactly savoring the "bouquet." However, the taste is like pure, undulating velvet – smooth, seamless flavors of some kind of sweet, purple stone fruit, mingling with cracked pepper and brown spices – and the aromas rush into the head from behind the palate, even long after the wine is swallowed. Better yet is knowing – this is my dream, mind you – that the wine was cheap, and there's a lot more where it comes from.
Which is why, when you think of it, I've probably remained in the wine business virtually all of my adult life. While dreams are nothing more than wishes, the reality is that there are always such wines to be found; despite the often overwhelming plethora of bottles and brands, at increasingly painful prices, that assault you every time you walk into a store.
When I first started in the business one of my biggest inspirations was the late, great Justin Meyer. He was one of the few winemakers (and I’ve met hundreds) who, when he would start to speak, my pen came out because I knew he would say something memorable. Looking at some old notes recently, I came across one of Meyer’s balder statements: “Americans pay too much for their wine.” This probably didn’t mean much to me before because I always believed people should spend whatever they feel like for a bottle of wine.
But now, over twenty five years later, I think I understand what Meyer was saying: there’s simply no correlation between the pleasure you receive and the price you pay when it comes to premium quality, commercial wine. Like Meyer, I’ve probably drunk too many wines that cost only $10 that I enjoyed a lot more than wines costing over $50 or $100. It doesn’t stand to reason, but my palate makes it so; especially taking in the factors of the foods I eat and the companions I keep. In many cases, better than a dream…
FAVORITE DRINKING REDS
Perhaps this explains those waking dreams: reminders that it’s the taste of the wine, stupid, not the 95 points or whatever is written on the wall or whispered through grapevines, that counts at the table. I’m sorry to say, but the dumbest thing a wine lover can do is believe everything he reads or is told.
Over the years my list of new “favorites” – which are invariably red (isn’t that the first duty of good wine?) – has never ceased to grow; and I suspect, even if they weren’t to his exact taste, Justin Meyer would have approved. Why? Because no one gave permission (call me stubborn, but I refuse to read reviews), yet they stimulate the pleasure centers all the same.
The following fave-raves might also give you an idea of the stunning range of deliciously different wines that might broaden your culinary perspective or, better yet, fit right in with the foods you’ve enjoyed all along. A good dozen choices, plus a lagniappe:
Jesse’s Grove, Earth, Zin & Fire (Lodi, California) – I was recently shocked - when presenting this in a professional wine/food matching seminar - by how the Earth, Zin & Fire effortlessly outperformed a top pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay in variant food contexts, with meats of every color. Thus, I’ve come to rely more and more upon Lodi grown zins like this for democratically priced, zesty reds to embellish one of my all time favorite meals: meatless spaghetti in souped up, sweet onioned, herbalicious sauces under mounds of grated Parmigiano. Oh, but this is also the perfect barbecue wine, too: mild yet tingly acidity and restrained tannin only elevate bouncy raspberry/blackberry jam aromas and flavors, tinged with cracked peppercorn – just for thing for grill branded, caramelized meats slathered in sweet, gingery soy or sweet/spicy/vinegary marinades. But when in doubt, cook the spaghetti and, to sweeten up the pot, pop a Lodi zin.
Parducci, Petite Sirah (Mendocino, California) – The current owners (Mendocino Wine Company) have not only turned this venerable old winery into the greenest in California (if things like organic grape growing, carbon neutrality, use of biodiesels and biodegradable packaging means something to you, Parducci has been leading the way), they have revived the brand in the area it counts the most: totally fresh, delicious wines, like this unbelievably well priced ($9-$12) petite sirah; exuding a sweet blueberry concentration spiked with pepper, and a dense, full, round, fleshy, purple robed body wrapped in moderate tannin and understated oak. Matching foods? You name it; starting with meatloaf in fresh mushroom gravy (in Hawai`i, we’d add an over-easy egg and steaming white rice), or anything having to do with steak: grilled, pan roasted, blackened, Louisiana Lightninged, smothered in onions, drenched in melted herby butter, bang up against a banister, or singed under your wife’s tanning lamp – really, all you need to do is make sure there’s something meaty to make this round, fleshy red wine work its magic.
Luchador, Shiraz (South Australia) – The only thing suspect about this wine is its silly (okay, “fun”), gimmicky lucha libre labels, depicting masked Mexican wrestlers (there are now four variations of such). But there are tons more that this wine has going for it: most notably, massive, forsooth macho, amounts of flavor, beginning with an exuberantly aromatic mix of blueberry, blackberry and Brie-like notes in the nose, and ending with thick, roly poly, cherry bomb fruit qualities in the mouth, unimpeded by dense, rounded tannins. Everything a good Aussie Shiraz should be, including a decent price ($15). As Steve Miller once said, somebody give me a cheeseburger!
Jose Maria de Fonseca, Domini (Douro, Portugal) - Since Port has fallen out of favor internationally in recent years, the Portuguese have been producing more robust, vigorously flavorful, outrageously well priced table reds exactly like this: made from the same grapes that go into classic Port, resulting in all the richness of Port, sans the alcoholic fortification. In the case of the Domini: a blend of touriga franca, touriga nacional and tinta roriz. Black color and opulent nose – sweet black fruits in a box of vanillin oak – and if you dig a little deeper, a taste of leather and stony, granitic terroir on the palate, merging in a fleshy, medium-full body, thickened by round, polished tannins. While retailing between $12 and $18, a vinous experience at any price.
Heron, Sexto (Terra Alta, Spain) - Laely Heron is an enterprising woman better known for her sourcing of some of the sexiest merlot based reds known to man, from France’s Languedoc region. Heron blended this uncommonly deep, substantial red from six grapes (hence, Sexto) grown in the high elevation, rugged, off-the-beaten-track terroir of Catalonia’s Terra Alta, just off Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Dry farmed, old-vine grapes like garnacha (33%), carineña (30%) and tempranillo (20%) give the wine wild, juicy qualities; cabernet sauvignon (6%), and syrah (5%) add undeniable power; and the rare lledoner pelut noir (6%) tops it all off with a sinewy, pungent tumescence. For $12-$14, sexto may never been better!
Bodegas Zabrin, Atteca (Calatayud, Spain) – This wine would not be so ridiculously good if not for its ridiculously good price ($13-$15 in most retail markets). Made from 80 to 100 year old vines of garnacha (a.k.a. grenache, the workhorse grape of Southern France), the nose is hugely rich and sweet (like cocoa dusted berries) and enlarged by smoky French oak; soft, round, medium-full, spiced berry qualities on the palate, tied down by firm tannins, making for a good, savory yet dry finish.
Clos la Coutale, Cahors (South-West France) – Depending upon which side of the country you’re on, this wine will set you back anywhere from $14 to $20. So you may want to buy two bottles, because it’s truly difficult to just drink one: a simply gorgeous combination of weight and ease, with seriously plump flavors filled out by round yet meaty tannin. This is a blend of mostly malbec (giving a blackberryish juiciness) with tannat (adding muscle and the feel of density), and just a smidgen of merlot (perceptively lush notes oozing out between the grains). Some nights, I think I’ve sat and cried over this wine’s majestic confluence of sensations. Okay, maybe not. But no serious dreamer of velvety reds should live without this.
Emiliana NOVAS Carménère/Cabernet Sauvignon (Valle de Colchagua, Chile) – The carménère grape typically yields a wine scented, for all the world, like Tabasco and jalapeño-like peppers. But in this organically grown wine, the grape is fleshed out by the firm tannin and minty berry qualities of cabernet; its medium-full body filled to the brim with plump fruit wrapped in smoky oak, while nuanced chile spices add interest rather than distraction. I once found this to be a seamless match with a mildly peppery arugula salad, tossed with Parmigiano, pine nuts and a soft, winey vinaigrette; but you should think things like rare beef sandwich with a pungent mustard or horseradish, pulled pork with a mess of sweet vinegared, salted frisée or cress (peppery greens help to round out the red wine tannins); although if there’s some truffle oil in the cabinet, well then, splash away!
Pircas Negras, Malbec (Famatina Valley, Argentina) - Malbec may be one of the "lesser" black skinned grapes that originated in Bordeaux, but in the high elevations of Argentina it is considered the “king”; and like any good king, it truly rocks across the palate with amazingly thick, juicy, massively muscled yet satiny smooth qualities, suggesting smoke, scrubby herbs, and sweet, wild raspberry. This brand (imported by Organic Vintners and qualifying as vegan) is a rock solid introduction to Argentina’s world of malbec; and if you haven’t yet experienced the thrill and value of it, then you’re in for a treat – especially for the $10-$11 price.
Bodegas Agapito Rico, Carchelo (Jumilla, Spain) – Carchelo is what you see on the label of this unusual blend of the mourvèdre (called monastrell in Spain), merlot, syrah and tempranillo grape varieties that I've been enjoying for well over a decade. The best way to describe it is that it gives $24 worth of flavor for a $12 price. Another way is to think of being fed meltingly rich, chocolate covered raspberries by lacy, satiny, black silk gloved hands. Any questions?
Bodegas Bretón, Loriñon Crianza (Rioja, Spain) – This is one of many fine examples of smooth, pungent, soft-as-suede $12-$13 tempranillo based reds coming out of Rioja today. The nose is punctuated by the red plummy, burnt leaf and beef consommé-like qualities of the grape, and there’s a feminine feel to the wine’s long, willowy, light to medium weight and tannins. All adding up to something of exceptional food versatility – easy enough for grilled fish, yet beefy enough for any meat, white or red, especially when coming off the barbie (since charring brings out the smoky nuances of the Loriñon).
Planeta, Cerasuolo di Vitoria (Sicily, Italy) – Sicilian reds made from the thick, black nero d’Avola grape have been popping up everywhere in recent years; but for the average Joe, the hard, bitter qualities of those wines are an acquired taste. The Cerasuolo – made from only 60% nero d’Avola – is fattened up by 40% frappato, effectively transforming the wine into a bowlful of plump cherries, while adding gingery nuances in the aroma and flavor; the nero d’Avola asserting its usual deep pigmentation and cracked pepper spice. At $16-$20, this makes an exotic, dense yet easy drinking red, especially with peppery charcuterie and lush, semi-soft cheeses with the usual fruit preserves. Throw in a side of lobster (think Chinese black bean sauce), a pound of cayenned crawfish or pulled pork with or without the barbecue spice, and you’ll find that few wines are as food resilient as this.
Sokol Blosser, Meditrina (Oregon, Washington & Paso Robles) – At $18-$22, this proprietary red stretches it insofar as “everyday” pricing; but oh, how it throttles the senses: ripe, sweet, plump cherry fragrances tinged with wild raspberry, flowing fluidly across the palate in waves of zesty sensations, redolent of berries and cherries. The current (fifth) edition of this nonvintaged blend is composed of Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley) grown pinot noir, Columbia Valley syrah, and Paso Robles zinfandel; proving once and for all, that when it comes to satisfyingly good drinking wine, it ain’t never the meat, it’s the motion.