Wine & Adulthood: Moving away from Mad Dog and Carlo Rossi
Part 1 of a series on Wine 101 by Finnian Durkan, edited by Sierra Christman.
BETTER RED THAN DEAD
There are many differentiators that crop up as you move from your 20s into what I can only assume is adulthood: your first car bought with a loan and not via the barter system, a mortgage, furniture that you didn’t find on a street corner with a “Free” label on it. And the appreciation of wine.
I fondly remember necking bottles of Carlo Rossi “Blush” in the park and tossing back flasks of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose in the days when the only thing that you cared about was a fast buzz for a low price. Cheap food, cheap booze, cheap cars, and sneaking into movie theaters—those are the things that turned my gears when I was in my teens and (to be honest) much of my 20s. But as you get older and more seasoned, you also learn to develop an appreciation for depth and nuance. Where a younger me would’ve preferred the term “loud” with respect to food, music, movies, or sex, “more seasoned” me prefers the shades of gray and medium tones between all of those flavors and notes; what’s not there can become as important as what is, what’s left unsaid becoming more powerful than what is spoken.
As I navigated this path from fast food tastes to a palate that appreciates a bit of variety, I began to notice alcohol as a key component in elevating meal appreciation to another level. It could actually accentuate the meal and lift it above to something revelatory and memorable. The situation that led to this epiphany came about while I was working as a bouncer at the well-known Seattle establishment, The Queen City Grill. In atypical fashion, shift meals here were usually shared with a few other people and a customer or three, and oftentimes involved someone springing for a fairly expensive bottle of wine. It was late on a Friday night, after the first wave of drunkards but before the last call that a mouthful of a 2001 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon mixed with a smoked pork chop in what is one of the few sense-memory moments that I still get misty-eyed about.
From there, I had the luck and privilege to work with Trevor Greenwood, a sommelier and wine connoisseur who would go on to open Seattle’s Cantinetta Osteria, the favorite Pacific Northwest hangout of Anthony Bourdain. With little eye-rolling and a teacher’s pride in his craft, Trevor walked me through the basics of wine appreciation over the next year or so, and I am forever grateful to him for that time.
For the basics, we will separate wine into two categories: Old World (Europe) and New World (everywhere else). For the sake of time, I’m going to stick with New World here and offer up some Old World equivalents along the way. Why, you ask? Because each European country has their own complex classification system defining what goes into the bottle and what gets written on the label, whereas the US and other New World wine areas are a little more straight-forward. If you’ve ever stared at the front of a French wine bottle and wondered what the hell a “Châteauneuf du Pape” is and why you should care, that is exactly what I am talking about: New World wines, with a few exceptions, are typically named by the grape—varietal in wine-snob speak—that goes into them, making the task of identifying exactly what you are drinking a whole bunch easier, whereas Old World wines require a bit of sleuthing. For example, Bordeaux wines from France are generally a mix of five varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Depending on the year, the mix can include one or all of these in varying percentages based on how each different grape is tasting after the harvest. Contrast that with the US, where even if the wine is called something completely abstract, like “Red Velvet,” it will list the percentages of the grapes contained in it on the back, making it a lot clearer what you are drinking before you open the bottle.
To start, let’s use the basic New World varietals that provide a broad range of flavors from dark and rich to light and crisp. Starting with the light end of the spectrum:
* Pinot Noir: grown mostly in Oregon and California, Pinot Noir has its Old World roots in the Burgundy region of France. It is one of the lighter red wines, and will typically have a medium red color that is fairly transparent, and has a flavor profile that tends towards cherries or plum, and pairs well with lighter red meats, lighter cheeses and most fish other than salmon. For a beer equivalent, you’re looking at a German-style pilsner from Chuckanut Brewery, perfect with grilled seafood that and subtle flavors.
* Merlot: one of the building blocks of the Bordeaux vintages, Merlot is a medium red grown throughout Washington and California and Old World equivalents would be Saint-Émilion or Pomerol. Merlot can be anywhere from bright red to a deep crimson, tasting like darker stone fruits, black cherry, and can even have hints of apple. It typically pairs well with more medium-ranged foods that have smoky notes, going especially well with grilled meat. For a beer on the same level, look for an amber ale like Mack & Jack’s African Amber. This is the wine you break out with some carnitas tacos, or grilled pork chops.
* Syrah, or “Shiraz” if you’re Australian and take your meat with a side of venomous snake. This is one of my favorite grapes that is starting to develop a real cult following in Washington (See: Old Bones by Charles Smith, a wine that I would shove your mother—not mine—out of the way to grab), with Old World equivalents in the Côtes du Rhône regions of France (famous regions include the aforementioned Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is typically a blend of three grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, known as a GSM blend). If you’re used to hanging out in your backyard with a cold Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic Brewing Co. while getting drenched in smoke from a bunch of spice-rubbed chickens, chorizo, or a nice lamb shank, then this is right up your alley.
* Cabernet Sauvignon: the grape that everyone knows, and one of the true heavyweights. It has Old World equivalents in the Bordeaux region (Château Lafite Rothschild, Pétrus, Château Mouton Rothschild), and can range from a deep velvety red to an inky purple. Cab pairs well with steak, lamb, funky
cheeses, coffee desserts, and most anything that would give you gout in large quantities. If you’re into beers with a ton of flavor and depth, like Captain Sig’s Northwestern India Red Ale from Rogue River Brewery or Monk’s Blood from 21st Amendment in San Francisco.
From those starting points it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to finding your way to some truly complex blends and single varietals that are a bit more off the beaten path. There are some truly phenomenal wines to discover in both New World regions like Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and even the Verde Valley in Arizona, which is excelling at some Spanish-style varietals like Malvasia, used by Arizona Stronghold wines (LINK: http://www.azstronghold.com/), and Caduceus Cellars run by Tool and A Perfect Circle front-man Maynard Keenan (featured in the documentary “Blood into Wine”).
That being said, there is no substitute for heading to your local wine merchant, asking a few questions, and getting a free crash-course in recommendations based on what you’re cooking. Food and drink is all about sense memory, and the only way to get that is to invite a few close friends over, throw some food on the grill, and crack a few bottles of vino—no one knows what you like but you, and the only way to get to the bottom of that is by sabering a few dozen bottles of adult grape drink and seeing where your taste buds take you. Now, put down that screw-top Night Train and go grab a bottle of red—daylight’s wasting, son.