Like most neophytes, I used to choose wines based on the label. Pretty label, pretty wine, I reasoned. It didn't take me very long to figure out that pretty labels and clever names were mostly marketing gimmicks. Recently, a fellow wine drinker and writer discovered much the same thing. Gradually, resisting my inner knee-jerk response to the lure of the label, I learned to stop responding to what was eye-catching and I started responding instead to what was actually written on the label. I paid more attention to region, varietals, vintage, winemakers. Even more than that, I began paying attention to what was written on the back label.
If I really wanted to find out what was inside the bottle, I'd have to do a little more work than just respond to artwork and logos. In order to be delivered from the seduction of visual cues (and my desire to be seduced), I would have to stop being Joe the Unconscious Wine Consumer and start becoming Jane the Informed and Literate Wine Buyer. This effort has turned out to be an educational experience that rivals my dozen-plus years in graduate school. In other words, my wine education seems to be continuing into perpetuity!
Having a never-ending education is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the exhilaration of being a student, the fomenting of ideas, the headiness of original thought--these things are very attractive about my never-ending education. On the other hand, the endless revisions, the constant scrutiny of peers and overlords, and the expense (Good God!!) of my never-ending education are truly daunting. But I plow on, bolstered and encouraged by my two fabulous Wine Guys (who, incidentally, participate with me in many classroom seminars and in vivo experiments), and no by small measure, my willingness to continue this educational journey. I have always learned something new about wine and have rarely been disappointed by the wines I now choose.
I usually can't go wrong following the recommendations of my Wine Guys. Allowing for differences in palates and subjective descriptors, we nonetheless seem to agree happily and disagree humorously about the wines they recommend and that we drink together. I feel very well taken care of, very well schooled and extremely fortunate. I mean, who else has Wine Guys that basically cover the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area for Austin, Texas?
But I also like to "go rogue." This is my term for my habit of cruising the aisles of a well-stocked wine shop and looking for the regions and varieties I most enjoy, but also for the anomalies and unsung heroes of the wine world that I have on my "to drink next list." Usually, those wines will come from Spain, Argentina, Chile and sometimes Oregon and California. Here's what happened as a result of going rogue most recently:
Gran Viu Seleccion 2002 (Carinena, Spain) This well-rounded red, a grenache blend, has a very sedate, unassuming label. Like the proverbial librarian who takes off her glasses and lets down her hair to reveal her inner sex kitten, however, this wine is full of intense and complex fruit, more than a hint of spice and an intense finish. It is unassumingly soft and sexy. In other words, it's surprisingly luscious.
Carlos Basso Dos Fincas 2009 (Mendoza, Argentina) I first encountered the charming Carlos while at a wonderful restaurant called Parkside on 6th St. in downtown Austin. Carlos charmed me, wooed me, almost made me cry. I didn't see the label before I bought a bottle. I just pounced on the word "malbec" on the menu and was immediately impressed. This wine is actually a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, which makes it very soft and seductive. The front label is simple, graphic, organized. If you read the back label, you will see a map and a brief description of the family that makes this wine. Some of you may like to know where your grapes come from and like to see maps of the region. Geography on its own is boring. Geography with a well-made bottle of wine in hand, well, that's another thing.
Est. 75 Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (St. Helena, CA) Read the back label. It begins "'75 The Year That Was...Queen Elizabeth knights Charlie Chaplin... Mikhail Baryshnikov, defector from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet..." And that's all I'm going to repeat until you move your body into a good wine shop and hunt up this delicious, crisp white wine. A veritable synopsis of world history in one small paragraph appears on the back label of that wine and I think you should experience it up close and personal. You and someone you like to drink wine with, that is.
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant (Santa Cruz, CA) Again, read the back label. I think this has reached the status of a cult wine, and I am the first to admit that I worship at the temple of Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards, who produces lovely Rhone-style wines and writes with great charm and wit. To wit (excuse the pun): "We encourage terrestial visitation of our tasting rooms or communing with the Mothership telephonically..." This invitation follows a tongue-in-cheek tale of flying saucers, or flying cigars being outlawed by the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 1954. Again, head thee to thy nearest Spec's and ask for this wine before you experience an alien abduction and are flown light years away to a universe that has no wine. This wine is crimson/magenta in hue with a firm minerality, lots of berries and fruit in the mouth and complex herbal notes with soft tannins and not a lot of oak. It could stand to age a few more years in the bottle (or so say some of you). If you do that with your bottle, call me and we'll compare notes. On the other hand, if you have some pull with extraterrestials and can get me a ticket on the Mothership, please contact me as soon as possible.
Sokol Blosser Evolution No. 9 (Willamette Valley, OR) I confess that I've been drinking this wine for years. This is one of those wines that is the exception to the rule of getting snagged by a snappy label. This wine very much has a snappy, eye-catching label that is fun to read. It is very much like a boyfriend you can't break up with. You know, that boyfriend that you have a "friends with benefits" relationship with. It very much is made from nine different varietals. It very much evolves and transforms from year to year. It very much complements a lot of spicy and acidic foods. Luck? Intention? You decide. Off-dry, tropical, fruit-forward and extremely drinkable, I think you'll agree that this wine has an attractive and clever presentation on the outside and a distinctive, if not off-beat beauty on the inside as well.
OK, so I know that I haven't mentioned anything about back labels that tell you about residual sugar, tannins, fruit or regional differences. This is "wine school" information and is helpful insofar as it can steer you away or toward a syrupy Gewurtzraminer or a bone-dry Chianti. Sugar, tannins and terroir all indicate the subjective experiences that wine drinkers have. They are reference points and "wine-speak," if you will, that help other wine lovers find common ground (or ways to seem superior). I want you to respond with your intellect, with your intuition, with your guts, when you are choosing the wine you want to drink. Go beyond the cover art and the pretty face. Obey your palate, which is truly unique. It's truly OK that you prefer sweeter wines, or dryer wines, or wines that make you feel as though you have fur on your teeth, or...or...But read the back label. Digest the information slowly. Ask questions. Think. Ponder. Close your eyes and imagine what is possible. Then respond to the care, intention and wit that went into creating the story of your wine. Great wine is at least partly great because it is accompanied by great stories. The rest is up to you and your tastebuds.