Making a good bottle choice

Invest a little time

July 10, 2009

Editor’s note: Anu Karwa wrote the Culinate wine column, titled Swirl, from July 2009 through December 2010.

Welcome to the first installation of the Swirl column. I may be a wine pro, but my primary concern is wine as a part of everyday life, not just as a part of a few big occasions or collections.

I got hooked on wine while living in San Francisco. After moving there, I quickly began spending as much time as possible (without raising eyebrows) in Napa and Sonoma counties. Shortly after discovering this new world, I fell in love with how passionate everyone in the industry is about wine — from winemakers to vineyard caretakers to the people who poured the wine in tasting rooms.

Wine wasn’t something they learned about and drank to impress their friends or colleagues. Instead, they believed, as I do now, that wine is something of the earth, which makes us slow down, at least for a bit, to take time truly to commune with others.

And most importantly, wine is simply a soulful and delicious thing to drink.

With this in mind, I’d like Swirl to take the intimidation out of wine and add more fun and adventure to the subject. As a food-loving friend of Culinate, I’m eager to answer your wine-related questions, whether related to entertaining, food pairing, what to try, how to order — whatever’s on your mind. To get this Q&A format going, please send your questions to me at Anu [at] SwirlEvents [dot] com.

How to be sure to pick a good wine

To kick off, I’d like to address one of the most commonly asked questions: “How do I make sure a wine I pick is going to be good without tasting it?”

Grapes on the vine.

We have so many choices in wine, whether in a restaurant or in the supermarket aisles, and we can’t “try wine on” before paying for it the way we would a new pair of shoes. Picking the “right” bottle can give some of us the trepidation we normally experience in a used-car lot.

Many of us choose wine based on a label we find familiar or attractive, and make a beeline out of the store, praying the bottle is good enough to go with the elaborate dinner we’ve planned.

Here are some methods to deal with the madness:

  1. Know the importer. There are a healthy handful of great wine importers that scour the back roads of tiny villages across the world to find the best international bottles (tough job, eh?). You’re nearly certain to pick a worthy bottle by choosing one of their selections. Some of my favorite importers include Kermit Lynch, Michael Skurnik, Louis Dressner, Jenny & Francois (great for natural/organic), Terry Theise, Becky Wasserman, and Rosenthal.
  2. Establish your go-to shop. I prefer shopping in small wine shops. When shelf space is precious, each bottle needs to earn its keep. Plus, a small wine shop doesn’t make me glaze over like the superstores do. A good wine shop’s staff should be well-educated about wine in general, and very knowledgeable about their particular selection. Keep going to the same store so the staff learns your preferences. And most importantly, make your preferences known. Remember one good bottle you had recently and be able to describe your experience. You don’t have to have remembered the producer or vintage. If you can say, “I recently loved this white wine because it was really fresh and tasted zippy in my mouth,” or “I’ve had a few Oregon Pinot Noirs and really enjoyed them, but want to try something a bit different,” you give the staff a lot to go on about your tastes.
  3. Expand your horizons, slightly. Generally like Chardonnay? Then try its “Old World” (i.e., European) equivalent, white Burgundy. It’s the same grape, but Old World convention names the wine by its region of origin instead of by the varietal (grape) name. A few more equivalents to get you started: Pinot Noir = red Burgundy; Cabernet/Merlot = Bordeaux (red); Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon = Bordeaux (white); Sancerre and Pouilly-Fuissé, Sangiovese = Chianti.

Editor’s note: For more of Anu’s good ideas, visit the blog on her Culinate member page.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by April Duran on Jul 15, 2009 at 2:51 PM PDT

When my husband and I were recently in San Francisco for our honeymoon, we paid a visit to Madonna Estates. They are a great organic vineyard which focuses on natural farming methods. We feel good about supporting businesses which share the same priorities as us!

2. by Anu Karwa on Jul 16, 2009 at 8:48 AM PDT

I second April’s comment about supporting small wineries that have philosophies similar to yours. Natural farming methods help assure a more untampered grape-to-glass experience - the way wine was originally intended.

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Vine to Table

Kerry Newberry is a wine and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She believes a good glass of wine is a story of people, place, and time. Join her here as she seeks out the personalities, politics, and poetics that craft a wine from vine to table. Follow her online and on Twitter @KerryNewberry.

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