Sunday, November 16, 2014

the gift wine

How I find the perfect gift wine for my customers

In the movie Red Obsession, a winemaker from Bordeaux says, “We need to please our customers, not impress them.” Great advice for anyone in our industry. In the case of a gift-wine, however, the challenge is doubled, because we need to please both the giver and their recipient.

When my customers ask for a gift wine I immediately create a mental flowchart. I play twenty questions with them, but in a nice, chatty way that does not (hopefully) feel like an interrogation.

Who is the recipient?
What I need to know is the relationship with the gift-giver - boss or superior, colleague, love-partner, love-partner wanna-be, friend, close friend, neighbour, hostess-gift, etc

What are the recipients tastes in wine? How knowledgeable are they about wine?

Sometime the giver knows nothing about the recipient. For example they are shopping for a secret Santa or they want a case of wine and gift bags on hand for unexpected people. In that situation I suggest wines based on the giver's taste. After all they may end up drinking it.

What is the occasion?
Under the tree? Company party? One on one? Why this is important is because the more generic, anonymous the occasion, the more generic, anonymous the gift. You don't need to learn some interesting story about the winemaker's wartime experience if the recipient will never know. At the same time, if the occasion is a Chanukah party, you might want to find an interesting Israeli wine.

Price, budget?
I always try to come in a bit below the customer's budget. Make them pleased. There is so much great wine at all price levels that surely we can find a wonderful gift for any budget.

Some general guidelines:
Red before white. Unfortunately we all still believe that Red is somehow more wine. Of course pick white if we know the recipient loves white. Sparkling can also be a great choice.

New world over old. Again unless we know otherwise, recipients will think they understand new world. However if the giver says that the recipient just got back from Greece, then go Greek!

Package – lots of great wines come with ugly labels. Don't pick them. Name names, you insist? Well, ok, Caronne Ste Gemme is a fantastic Bordeaux with a label your ten-year-old niece could improve upon with a desktop publishing program. Find wines with labels that are elegant and well-designed. Stay away from critter wines, unless the giver knows the recipients favourite is Little Penguin. Stay away from cute names, “ZinfreekinFastic,” unless you know the recipient goes that way.

Famous brands - “They just love Cakebread.” A smart move here is to find something similar but obscure, better priced and will exceed all expectations. Unless the recipient is a total brand-hog, you and the giver will be heroes.

In general stay conservative, go with the tried and true. But if you know the recipient is a bit open-minded and experimental you can find many fantastic crowd-pleasing wines from, for example, Spain or Portugal, for under $20.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sweet - the best wine in the world

Do you have a prejudice against sweet wines? You shouldn't. I am devoted to fighting this prejudice. 

Why do so many of us think we don't like sweet wines? My theory is this: When we just turned 18, or for some of us maybe a bit younger, we went on dates with people who tried to get us drunk. Invariably the drink of choice was cheap and sweet. The idea was not to be a connoisseur of wine, or even to really get to know us. The idea was to get to know our southern bits.

Of course we eventually matured, each at differing speeds. And we learned to drink mature drinks. We remember with embarrassment our immature experiences with immature, sweet wine. So we thought, ah, mature people drink dry wine. 

This was a mistake, I know now. We should have learned to date mature people.

Some of the greatest wines in the world, the longest lived, and the most expensive, are sweet. What is the secret to great sweet wines?  How do they avoid that heavy, syrupy, cloying, cheap taste? The secret, as in all wines, and perhaps all things, is balance. The sweetness must be balanced by acidity. The wine must lift in your palate, not weigh down. 

Often people ask me what wine is the very best? I try to avoid answering. I duck, I deak. I say, "It depends. Wine is situational. The best wine for the summer patio is different than the best wine for the fireplace on an autumn evening. The best wine for your wedding reception is different than the best for family dinner. The best wine depends on the situation, the people and, of course, your palate."

I speak the truth, but still, still I lie. 

Now the thoughtful questioner will ask a follow-up question - What is the best wine situation? What is the situation that is most important, that requires the greatest wine?

The answer, of course, is the love-trap. Think spider. Think web. 

Today over 30,000 commercial wineries around the world churn out new wines every year. How can there be a 'best'? How would anyone know, since no one could try them all?

In 1855 the French government tried to answer this very question. They ranked the wines of Bordeaux by 'Crus' (growths). Crus are like leagues. The list they made in 1855 lives today and has only been changed once. If the wine made the list it will say so on the bottle: "Grand Cru Classé en 1855."

Of course the list is controversial and people today argue about its relevance and composition and everything that wine people enjoy arguing over. At the top of the list is one wine that no one argues about - it was put in a league of its own. And it remains there today - the only "Superior First Growth." 

Chateau d'Yquem (eekem)

Yquem is sweet, comes in small bottles, is ridiculously expensive and can age up to one hundred years.

Before you die you really should try Yquem. Preferably with someone nice and mature. In the meantime please open your mind to the amazing sweet world of sweet wines.

Monday, November 3, 2014

On elegance and wine writing

'Elegance' is one of the most overused words in wine writing – reviews as well as marketing. Such and such wine has elegance; that wine is filled with elegance; the winemaker puts elegance in the bottle. As if elegance were an ingredient to add or subtract. We can imagine some corporate panel sending memos down to the winery- "needs more elegance, increase elegance by a third." 

Sometimes elegance is used in wine writing as a kind of code word for the opposite of powerful. Let's say this year the grapes did not fully ripen because the weather was lousy or they picked too early or they over cropped. The resulting Cab turned out to be 13.5% alcohol and their usual offering at, say, 15%. The winemaker (or their marketing writers) will say, "this year our stellar Cabernet Sauvignon shows tremendous elegance." 

Tremendous. So any insipid, weak wine has elegance? Oy. Meaningless.

The masters offer a bit of help: Tom Stevenson in his Wine Encyclopedia defines elegance as "stylish, possessing finesse." Unfortunately he defines finesse as the characteristic that separates fine wine from the rest. So all fine wine has elegance. And we are back to meaningless.

In the Real World©, elegance is usually considered a quality of the feminine. A Chanel dress. Audrey Hepburn. Baccarat crystal.Timeless, classic and stylish. Bur can't men also be elegant? Can't elegance also be a quality of powerful men and powerful women?

In engineering, software design and mathematics, elegance is used to describe solutions that are simple, effective and without excess. Perhaps we can also think of elegance in wine that way - beautiful and delicious without being too much - simplicity without being simple.

Tasted both alone and at table, the 2012 Alphonse Mellot 'La Moussiére' completely charmed me and my dining partners. 'La Moussiére' from Sancerre in France is a wine of elegance – pleasing, graceful, nuanced yet deceptively simple.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is the Italian spelling for Pinot Gris (the grey Pinot). Same grape, different spelling. But over time the spelling has come to indicate a stylistic difference – Pinot Grigio tends to be light, refreshing and crisp. Typical Pinot Grigio is inexpensive, simple and good for the patio or brunch with the 'girls.' I call it the 'Blue-haired California Grandmother' wine. Not an insult, my grandma, Emma, was one.

Pinot Gris, by contrast, tends to be richer and fuller – think melon versus citrus - and therefore, more 'serious' than Pinot Grigio.

Our dear wine-world is filled with such stereotypes .