The vintage is a Lost Vineyards red. I lift the glass to my nose and inhale deeply. The bouquet is questionable, but I’m not going to judge yet. I swirl the wine and take my first sip.
The concoction might make a nice salad dressing, but it definitely doesn’t qualify as a wine. Lost Vineyards isn’t a find. In fact, the only thing lost is my appetite. “Oh boy,” says a friend. “I don’t think I can finish this.”
What can the average undergrad do to avoid terrible wines? Tired of a life where my budget dictates drinking out of a box, I realize it is time to ask the local experts for help.
My first stop is Zach’s Liquor on the corner of Elm and Howe streets. A soft-spoken clerk with a scar on his eyebrow leads me to a series of crates on the floor. “Five-ninety-nine,” he says, and points. “Or two for eight bucks.” I spot a crate of Lost Vineyards marked two for $10. “How about this one?” I ask. “Oh yes.” He nods. “Very good.”
Apparently Zach’s Liquor is one of the culprits in the substandard viticultural life of undergrads. At College Wine on the corner of College and Crown streets, the selection is better but rather boring. Salesmen George and Sanjay guide me through a selection of domestic Pinot Grigios for seven dollars and recommend several Merlots. Like Paul Giamatti in this year’s Sideways, who said, “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving!” I had flashbacks of the jug upon jug of Yellow Tail I swilled this year, and I was bored with the safest wine on the block.
I find salvation at The Wine Thief, farther afield on Whitney Avenue. The small storefront is crammed to the ceiling with shining bottles. Blonde, muscled, enthusiastic salesman Karl Ronne spouts knowledge like a fountain at a Bacchanalia. His piercing blue eyes hold mine as he doles out sage advice. “You got be careful,” he says. “There’s a lot of inexpensive wine out there — The majority of wines are marked down for a reason.” The mystery of the Lost Vineyards is coming clear. Karl takes me through the basic factors.
For inexpensive white wine, he says, look for current vintages. Older wines may be on sale, but whites are dubious if they’re not from 2003 or 2004. “You might be luckier finding reds that are older vintages but still good,” says Karl. “But what happens to these wines is the fruit starts to break down in them and you’ve got the tannin and the acidity — not appealing.” While tannin can add structure and texture to reds, this substance, which is found in the stems, skins and seeds of grapes, can overwhelm wines past their peak. Karl recommends sampling slightly more expensive reds because they’re made to age.
While it may seem obvious, the discerning buyer must note store environment, temperature and staff knowledge. “No one’s going to sell anyone a bad bottle on purpose,” says Karl, “but if the proprietor doesn’t know that much about wine to begin with and the salesman comes to them and says he’s going to give them a great deal.” I picture the manager of Zach’s Liquor unloading case after case of the vinaigrette “wine” into his cellar. In these cases, the store owner wants to get the product off his hands as fast as possible. “There’s an old saying,” says Karl, “You can sell anything once.”
Then there’s the foreign component to savvy wine purchases. Most domestic wineries don’t produce enough to sell to consumers at a discount. “It’s amazing,” Karl says, “we can get wine from Australia shipped to the West Coast, truck it all the way here, and it’s $6.” Australian vineyards beat us in production, thus creating the general rule: cheap foreign wine may be tastier than domestic wines of the same price. Of course, Karl names the old American standbys, like “all those Gallo products,” but Karl is looking for something a little spicier, as I’m about to find out.
Chile is another highly productive wine country, but the grape varietals are more ordinary: Chardonnays, Sirrahs and Merlots. “How much Chardonnay and Merlot can you really drink?” quips Karl.
Merlot be damned. Karl points to lesser known countries such as Uruguay. Squashed between Brazil and Argentina, “no one thinks of it,” says Karl, “and they’re yielding some interesting, inexpensive wines.”
But for Karl, Spain is the champion. Karl explains that the square acreage devoted to grape growing in Spain is roughly the size of Rhode Island. “That’s taking Rhode Island and planting grape vines on every square inch.” Last year, The Wine Thief stumbled on a Spanish vintage called Roja Bella that sold for $3 a bottle. It caused something of a consumer phenomenon for the shop. “We sold literally hundreds of cases of that stuff,” says Karl. “Customers bought 20 cases at a time. At $26 a case, it makes a great gift. You take it to a party — people don’t know if it’s $3, $6, $10 a bottle.” Karl adds with a smile, “We’re going to get more in soon.”
Besides being the best deal ever, Spain boasts a listing of exotic grape varietals that have Karl raving. He pulls out bottles of Tempranillo and Garnachas, tossing them from hand to hand before rushing to others. Before I leave, Karl presses his card in my hand and invites me back. “Or you could call me,” he says. “If you have any questions when you’re writing your article.”
I smile. His cuteness is compounded by his omniscient catalogue “du vin.” This Friday evening when I pop the cork on the Tempranillo, my friends will go wild with delight. “What is this?” they’ll ask, lifting the nectar to their parched lips. Our musical, appreciative laughter will float down the block to Zach’s Liquor where that unnamed clerk will be waiting… waiting… for his next victim.