So I'm slothing at home, feeding my pathetic addiction to Law and Order reruns on TNT, when the phone rings. My friend John is at dinner with a promising date, freaking out about what wine to order. After I giggle a moment about the thought of "love-'em-and-leave-'em" John on a real date and spending some bucks on a chick, he says he wants to order the wine I was gushing about the week before, an old vintage pinot noir from Burgundy. By the glass, it was a modest $8, but I couldn't remember the whole name. (My mind is a sieve; if I don't write it down, it doesn't register.) I advised him to the best of my ability, he wrote it down, then presumably ordered the wine without looking at the list. It, unfortunately, wasn't the right name. I got a rather snippy call from him the next day letting me know my advice cost him $120. And he didn't get lucky either. Somehow, that's the last time he asked my wine advice.
Unbelievably late one night, a scratchy phone call came through, laced with the background sound of restaurant chatter. My friend was calling me from France, looking at a list of foreign wines. You see, in France most restaurants don't exactly feature California wines on their lists ... they're funny that way. So my friend was lost in a sea of regions with no cabernet, chardonnay or syrah in sight. We assessed the dinner group's financial limitations -- in France, the Burgundies and Bordeaux wines are still offensively priced even though they're produced right there. We gauged their taste -- Rhone wines almost always please a group. Then we settled on a Gigondas from the Rhone Valley. Since we had to shout to hear each other, it took several minutes to find a solution. The call probably cost more than the wine.
Perusing a well-stocked grocery store wine aisle is, to say the least, a pain in the ass for those who don't drink very often. I've received hurried calls about what to bring to a dinner party (cabernet sauvignon is always a good bet), anxious pleas about what to buy for a gift (everyone loves dessert wine) and sheepish requests for the best cheap wine to share on the couch. It's a little harder to answer this last one, but my rule of thumb: It's easier to produce good, inexpensive cabernet sauvignon than pinot noir or chardonnay, and Chile produces some extraordinary inexpensive wines.
I love all these calls, since imparting knowledge feels right to me. The counsel is always free, the wine and the experimentation, however, are up to you.
Martin and Weyrich 2005 Moscato Allegro California A refreshingly honest, sweet wine. Perfumey with roses, cotton candy and overripe pears. Rich with just-picked apricots. Kinda tastes like a really, really good Bartles and James wine cooler. Sweetness = 6. $12. ****1/2
2004 Mommessin Pouilly Fuissé This French chardonnay from the Burgundy region is -- pardon the use -- dee-lish. Smooth, delicate fruit like fragrant peaches, honeysuckle and ripe red apples. Finishes clean and elegant with a tartness that lasts seemingly forever. Sw = 3. $14. ****
York Mountain 2003 Syrah Jack Ranch Clone Edna Valley Dark and mysterious like someone who'd feel comfy in a smoky, backroom poker tourney. Cherry and black pepper ooze out of its drops, with a follow-up of fruity, smoky earth. Fascinating, complex. Sw = 1. $18. ****
Burgess Cellars 2001 Syrah Lake County The nose picks up an odd stench of gym sweat, but the tongue tastes cherries and roses. It tries real hard to win you over, but that smell ... whew. Sw = 1. $22. **