I was in the wine section at the supermarket listening to an associate assist a customer in selecting a bottle of wine. I overheard a lot of “I don’t knows” from the associate. The customer seemed to be attracted to the pretty labels and less concerned about the grape, the price and what does the back of the bottle say about how the vintner describes the overall flavor. To a customer it appears the higher the price, the better the wine, right? Maybe for the first glass but after that, the average everyday wine consumer like me can move right to the cheaper stuff.
I had the flu this past week and went without my usually daily glass. It is not good to drink alcohol around some flu medicines. Last night I poured a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from Mondavi Winery. I paid all of $9 for the bottle. It was wonderful. It had such a wonderful flavor profile. The back label said:
“Our Cabernet Sauvignon has a classically deep red color and is rich with cherry and blackberry flavors that are perfectly balanced with a hint of oak and a long fruit finish.”
And, it was exactly as described.
You have to cultivate a taste for the wine, especially dry wine, and the wine has to meet your expectations consistently. This is a relationship that occurs over time until it becomes a dance.
For 25 years I lived within a two-hour ride of the Napa Valley. I visited so often I know it pretty good. I was there in the 1980’s when most wineries had two wine barrels setup with a wood plank over the top as a tasting counter and they poured a free glass. There might have been 5 or 6 people in the room. Now, the tasting rooms are high-end counters with maybe 50 people in the room and you have to pay in advance for the glass, usually $5, (whether you will like the wine selection or not) and they only pour a dash for tasting. You get – a taste. Barely. Not much to go on. I think they know most people aren’t going to get it anyway and the only thing a full glass will do at this point is put more drunks on the road.
So, what advice would I give the customer at the supermarket?
Well, I can tell you how I go about selecting a wine.
I start with the grape.
I like the Cabernet grape. Though most bottles are blended with a milder Merlot, it is the most classic of the reds for me. The best Cabernet grapes to me are grown in the Napa Valley. These days wineries have grapes trucked in from all over the state, but the vintners there know how to blend and make that wine. I will choose Cabernets from Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Inglenook, Mondavi, V. Sattui and Charles Krug. I love Stags Leap but I am not willing to pay the price.
I like a Merlot grape. There is only one Merlot I will buy – ever. That is a bottle of Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley. Any bottle of Merlot from Sterling Vineyards is perfect.
I like a good Chardonnay but it is the only white I will drink. The other whites are either too bitter or two sweet or two weak. While Napa and Sonoma valleys make good Chardonnays, I only drink Chardonnays from the central coast of California. There is something better about that grape. My favorite bottle is Edna Valley Chardonnay from San Luis Obispo. My second favorite is Mirassou Chardonnay near Monterey.
I like a good Zinfandel. Napa has good Zinfandels but I am hard pressed to find one better than the ones found in the Amador Valley, a small region in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento. Renwood Winery is my favorite Zinfandel.
I like a good brandy (called Cognac in France). My favorite and I will pay a lot of money for this brandy is Germain-Robin a brandy distilled in Mendocino County, California. Mendocino is my favorite place on earth.
When looking for a sweet desert wine like a Sherry, Tawny Port or a Madeira, my favorite is a Madeira from V. Sattui winery in Napa. The bottle is sealed with a red wax coating. You will have to pay $50 for this bottle of perfection.
My everyday wine is a box wine from Almaden Vineyards in San Jose. I saw a B.B. King concert at Alamden Winery many, many years ago. Almaden has been an old friend to me for most of my life. Wine in a box BTW is the way to go. It keeps fresher longer in the sealed plastic wine bag. It is only $15 a box for very good everyday drinking and cooking wine. I use wine in all my recipes.
Anyway, this is how I roll when it comes to selecting California wines:
- What grape am I considering and for what purpose am I considering it?
- Where is the place this grape is grown and what is the history of it growing in this region?
- How much will I have to pay?
Rarely do I pay more than $15 a bottle, usually around $9 for a very good tasting bottle of wine. I pay $15 for a box which contains three bottles.
How about you? What are your go-to bottles?