August 1, 2013

How to Have a Crappy Time with Wine

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 7

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By Brenda Singer

The world of wine is unnecessarily complicated. Bottles are identified by exact percentages of specific grape varietals except for when they’re labeled according to where the grapes were grown regardless of where the winery is, or by the village name within the wine region of origin, or by how long the wine was cellared before its release… you get the point. It’s no wonder some people give it all up and just drink Heineken… Jim.

On top of that, there are a lot of people who seem to make it their mission to complicate wine further. Take the restaurant wine director who was under-loved as a child and shows up uninvited at your table when all you want to do is have a nice anniversary dinner at an eatery you can ill-afford: “You’ve selected the vegetable lasagna for dinner? Excellent,” he says, through clenched teeth that reveal both his sarcasm and mediocre dentistry. “We have 12 Sangiovese-based wines on the list, and you will rightfully assume all will pair well with the entrée because Sangiovese makes up the base of any good Chianti (and you’re stoked that you know that). But, I haven’t and most assuredly will not tell you that our Sangiovese-based wines are from Sicily, Walla Walla and Napa Valley, and that really the less expensive Syrah-dominant wine from the wee-little Rhone village you’ve never heard of is a far better selection.”

Wow. That restaurant wine schlong is only a fabricated composite, and I’m still ready to drink green-bottled beer. Clearly he’s part of the problem, and, sadly, he’s not alone.

Wine is dangerously easy to enjoy, fabulously comforting and largely good clean fun for the whole family. Causing a wine experience to go south seems not just immoral, but damn difficult. Still, there are a few ways to ruin a good time with wine.

Spend Too Much

This is easy to do. Society teaches us in near-countless ways that if you spend more, you’ll get something better. Spend a lot more, get something much better. What’s worse is that it’s generally true, even with wine. The problem is that this line of thinking makes it easy to spend beyond your comfort zone, and nothing will kill an evening with wine like buyer’s remorse.

A $75 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may taste fantastic, but so do a lot of $25 Sonoma Cabernets. As do many sub-$20 Central Coast Cabs, like the Cab-blend Meritage by Hahn Estate.

Ask yourself this: How good does a wine have to be to make it OK that you can’t afford to pay for your unborn child’s college tuition? Or dinner? If you find a wine that good, I’d say your priorities are for crap, but I sure hope you save me a glass.

Spend Too Little

Believe it or not, this is harder to do. There are more and more good and even semi-kick-ass bottles that can be had for the price of a gourmet burger. And, in glorious converse to spending too much, spending less on a bottle feels like you beat the system a little. Who doesn’t feel better about whatever they’re drinking when sticking it to The Man?

Still, if you go for the $3 bottle of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Poison from your local Gas-n-Sip, expect a crappy wine. Likewise for most (but certainly not all) still wines that have no vintage year on them and/or come in a large box with a spigot.

Look for Cava (sparkling wine) or Grenache from Spain (called “Garnacha” en español), Malbec or Torrontes from Argentina, or anything noted in the brilliant wine article in Loop Magazine’s first issue. All come from the cheaper side of the vine and will leave you enjoying them while sporting the sort of smirk I assume Banksy wears on a regular basis.

Drink it in a lousy environment

A bad environment can involve crappy food, a crappy place, a lousy situation or crappy people. Any of these will seriously harsh your good vibes with a wine. No matter how good it is, you’ll connote the wine with the craptastic environment—and not just now, but whenever you try that wine again. And don’t think a “really good wine” can break that curse. If you split up with your soulmate, that’s not the time for Lafite Rothschild. Even a liquid legend is going to taste as bitter as your tears, completely overshadowed by your emotional state.

That’s not to say you can’t/shouldn’t drown your sorrows when the going’s rough. Just don’t waste the good stuff. Here’s a guideline: If you’re at a celebration of one’s life, pull out the finest, as you laugh a little, cry a little and raise a glass of the dearly departed’s favorite wine. If you’re at a FUNERAL, stick to black coffee with just enough grocery-store whiskey in it to get you through.

Now, drinking wine with people who just don’t care (whether or not they have their hands in the air and are waving)—that’s a different situation from being around crappy people, but it’s still fraught with peril. These may be perfectly decent folk. Friends, even. They just happen to not give one rat’s ass about wine. (That makes them lesser friends, of course… not that we’re judgy.)

Even if you’re new to wine, in your first couple wine purchases, you’re bound to buy at least one bottle you’re particularly excited about. Maybe you read the card on the store shelf (called a “shelf talker,” adorbs), or an unusually helpful employee recommended it with tales of “a great nose, fine structure and long finish.” No matter why, you bought it feeling stoked. There’s no better way to extinguish that stokedness than by opening it for people who will drink it and not give a crap. If they didn’t like wine, that would be better, because you would just keep the rest of the bottle for another night. But to suck it down like Diet Coke, without even a mention of the wine’s color, bouquet, complex flavors or how cool it was of you to share it is—if I may paraphrase the much maligned and only probably racist Jar Jar Binks—really crappy.

Drink it while watching 2 Broke Girls.

That show will ruin anything.

Drink it at the wrong temperature

Now you’re just getting angry, right? Temperature is supposed to be easy. We all know that you chill white wines and drink reds at room temperature. Here’s the problem: This oversimplification results in too many whites drunk too cold and reds drunk too warm.

Your kitchen refrigerator is set to ensure dairy products don’t spoil in fewer than seven days. Again, it’s a huge machine designed to prevent week-old cow’s milk from making you ill. That’s damn cold. When you drink wine at this temperature, you suppress a lot of its bouquet and flavor. If you’ve ever noticed how much more fragrant and flavorful cheese is warm compared with cold, you’ll get what I’m talking about. If your white wine is in the fridge, take it out 20 to 30 minutes before you pop the cork (or better, twist the cap—more on that in a bit). If your white wine is at room temperature and you need it quickly, put the bottle in a bucket filled with half ice and half water. In 20 minutes, your Chardonnay will be perfect.

Reds at room temperature works, so long as your room isn’t in Death Valley or a Nordic ice hotel. If your house is permanently set at 63-degrees Fahrenheit1, you needn’t worry about temperature. But, if you’re enjoying Pinot Noir on the porch in August, you may want to keep the bottle in a cooler bag. Likewise, if your glass frosts over when you pour a Bordeaux into it, your Bordeaux is trop froid. The easiest remedy is to cup your glass in your hands. The heat from your mitts will transfer to the wine faster than, say, blasting your stemware with a hairdryer.

Drink anything closed with a real cork

I realize this sounds like I’m being ironic. I’m kinda not. Yes, real cork from a cork tree is still the most common enclosure for wine that comes in a bottle (rather than a jug or a box). Yes, most of the wine I drink is finished with an actual cork. But there’s a dark, evil secret that can live within cork, and it’ll ruin your wine.

TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole for your chemistry geeks) is a crappy little compound that likes to reside in cork2 in trace amounts. Mere parts-per-trillion can absolutely ruin a bottle of wine. If you’ve ever opened a bottle and had it smell musty like an unfinished basement or like wet newspaper/cardboard/foul cork, you’ve unfortunately experienced TCA. Yet somehow, despite TCA tainting as much as 10 percent3 of all cork-closed wine, corks are still the industry standard stopper.

Imagine if you completely screwed the pooch doing whatever it is you do for a living 10 percent of the time. How long would you keep your job (politicians excepted)? Clearly it’s time to fire corks.

The good news is that cork employment is slowly being downsized, which means there are evermore options for you. A majority of wines from Australia and New Zealand are now sealed with screw caps, and more wine makers and enthusiasts around the world are coming around to the idea that screw caps are not a sign of crappy wine.

If you follow these simple no-no-don’t-dos and simply drink wine in ways that are the very antithesis of the above, you should have nothing but uncrappy wine moments.

  1. I’d offer a conversion to Celsius, but we all know that’s a made up unit of measurement. Silly Canadians. 

  2. TCA can also live in other parts of a winery, thanks to misguided cellar rats cleaning with chlorine. If left unchecked, it can ruin whole barrels of wine. Thus, it is possible to get a “corked” bottle that doesn’t have a cork. But, in all my years of fieldwork and personal research (hic!), I’ve never come across one of these phantoms. 

  3. 10 percent is a high-end estimate. While for a long time I had a great TCA-free run, last year I hit about 8 percent in bottles from my personal stash.