Do you love Cabernet, but know nothing about Chenin Blanc? Or have an abiding interest in rich Chardonnay, but have no clue about 20-year-old Australian Semillons?
As a wine columnist, I’m expected to know something about every wine the world. That’s impossible if not absurd. Wine can be endlessly complex. Even fanciers of Italian cars might have trouble speaking of the Covini.
A decade ago, we visited Ajaccio, Corsica, and tried a splendid red wine made from the rare, local Sciaccarello grape. As good as it was, I’ve never seen anyone mention it, ever, because the wine isn’t available outside Ajaccio.
So most wine lovers specialize in easily found grapes and wines. Even wine collectors tend to fancy two or three wines and have little interest in much else.
A well-known San Diego wine collector with literally many thousands of bottles in his two wine cellars once admitted to me that he had not a single bottle of Italian wine in his cellar. Not even one great Barolo.
“Why would I?,” he said noting that he had lots of 1961 Bordeaux.
The late wine auctioneer David Reynolds once worked as the wine buyer for a La Jolla wine merchant. When I asked him who were his best buyers, he said, “Newcomers.
“Their eyes are still wide open and eager to learn. They ask for suggestions — and they get excited when they find an interesting wine they’ve never tried.
“When Dr. (R) comes in, I head for the Burgundy section. He would never be interested a white Bordeaux, no matter how good it was.”
I moved to Sonoma County in 1986 and spend much time at Napa and Sonoma wineries chatting with winemakers. I thought the top Cabernet producers would be fixated on Bordeaux, and top sparkling winemakers would adore Champagne.
And they do — budget permitting. But it’s apparent that California winemakers have an affinity for great wines in any form, and from a multitude of varieties.
I was chatting last week with Anthony Beckman, the talented 13-year winemaker for Balletto Vineyards, about his new 2018 (as yet unreleased) Pinot Gris, which is sensational. We agreed that most Pinot Gris were rather ordinary.
But Beckman noted that some Pinot Gris are phenomenal — such as the Domaine Ostertag from Alsace. This is a pricey and hard-to-get wine that not only tastes fascinating when young, but has a reputation for improving with cellar aging.
On the other hand, Condrieu, an all-Viognier white wine from the Rhône, such as the famed Château-Grillet, is generally best when young, without much aging. (A 5-year-old bottle of Grillet I had in the mid-1990s was already showing deterioration.) Winemakers usually know this.
Of all the wine lovers I’ve met, those who usually know stuff like this are winemakers. About 20 years ago, a Santa Barbara winemaker went crazy when he spoke of the Loire Valley’s eccentric, controversial Sauvignon Blanc genius Didier Dagueneau, a man I hadn’t yet discovered. (Dagueneau died in a flight accident a decade ago.)
Being a winemaker has at least one drawback: the cost.
One winemaker I met in the early 1990s said he knew little about wine until he began working at a winery owned by a couple that traveled to wine regions around the world and often returned with classic wines.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said the winemaker, “but what I didn’t realize was that it was going to be so expensive!”
After tasting some of the world’s greatest wines, he said, “I started to figure out that being a winemaker was going to cost me. Big time!”
“Oh, sure,” said Barry Herbst, wine buyer for Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, who has as large a wine selection as any fine wine outlet I have ever seen. “Winemakers are our best clients.
“Doctors used to be, like when I was running a fine wine program in the 1980s (in Southern California). But I’m here, and now it’s winemakers.
“Today I have to stay current with all kinds of wines that most customers would consider obscure.” He said he gets requests from winemakers for wines the average consumer would have little interest in.
I was in Bottle Barn last week to buy a few bottles of Champagne and a German Silvaner (a wine I love). Barry suggested one from Alsace. He carries about a half dozen Silvaners and often suggests them to those who are buying dry German Rieslings.
Herbst had heard that Balletto’s Beckman loved the hard-to-get Ostertag Pinot Gris. “I can get some of that,” he said. “I think some winemakers I know might like it, too.”
I’m guessing I will also.
Discovery of the Week: 2015 Greywacke Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($35): This stylish Pinot Noir has faint hints of Burgundy and the spice of Russian River Valley along with excellent berry fruit, dried herbs, near-perfect structure, and 3- to 5-year potential. Winemaker Kevin Judd (ex Cloudy Bay) has made Greywacke into an iconic Marlborough-based brand. This wine is the equal of any PN from two other great New Zealand Pinot regions, Martinborough and Central Otago. Occasionally discounted to $30 or less.