I was recently asked by a wine magazine to write a short blurb about the one wine style (not brand) I would choose to drink for the rest of my life, as if I were stranded on a desert island with only that one wine.
Hmmm … Dry Riesling? Red Burgundy? Aged Bordeaux? Chablis? The more elegant styles of California and Oregon Pinot Noir? Racy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc?
I settled on rosé Champagne, and by extension, other pink sparkling wines from around the world, not only because I love the year-round festiveness of rosé fizz, its thirst-quenching ability and remarkable compatibility with a wide range of foods, but also because my late step-grandmother, Pearl, adored rosé bubbly and gave me my first taste of wine, ever, when I was 10 or 11 years old.
Just a sip, mind you, but that coral-colored sparkler in the Marie Antoinette coupe glass tickled my nose and taste buds, and made me feel special, because Pearl, a global traveler and foodie, shared a part of culture with me that I did not experience in my own home. Dad drank Coors and Cutty Sark, Mom was an occasional Vodka Collins drinker, and wine had no role factor in my life until Pearl joined our family.
The sparkling rosés I gladly gulp now remind me of Pearl, a lover of great food and wine. By sharing a taste of her pink fizz with me, she planted seeds in my young brain that would much later germinate into my own adoration of fine wine, and propel me into the career I now have. Pearl died without knowing the impact she had on my life, and I toast her now for exposing me to a delicious world I may not have found otherwise.
From the soda-poppy Annie Green Springs and Boone's Farm wines of my under-aged youth, to the sweet Mateus rosés of my college days, to Sutter Home White Zinfandel of my late-20s, to the more 'serious' wines I drank in my early-30s, I was on a path of discovery.
When I moved to Sonoma County in 1990 and worked as a Brix sampler and cellar rat for that year's grape harvest, I became exposed to truly exceptional wines, poured by their makers, my new set of friends, at typically simple pot-luck dinners. The talk was not about how the grapes were grown nor the wines made, but rather how the kids were doing in soccer, when to plant tomatoes, and how we would vote in the next election.
Each wine-drinking experience delivered more than just an alcoholic high; it added to my bank of memories, expanded my group of friends, broadened my knowledge of food, and made meals taste better.
I will never forget the time I brought a bottle of Lancers back to the college apartment I shared with three others. I pulled off the capsule to expose, yikes, a cork! Who knew? Lacking a corkscrew, I jammed the plug into the bottle with a table knife and a hammer, and poured the wine into our jelly glasses, cork bits and all. We had a good laugh, and I bought a corkscrew the next day. Wine's aromas and flavors are important, of course, as are acidity, structure, food compatibility and age-worthiness (for certain wine types). Yet wine's ability to stimulate conversation is a happy bonus.
I've come a long way since those days, in both my wine knowledge and tasting experience, yet I remember many of the baby steps which led me to work in the wine business. There was the Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay I enjoyed with a brown-bag cheese sandwich and chips during an off-property lunch break when I was a beer-and-a-shot sportswriter.
The Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay I took to a dinner party in the late 1980s had my friends marveling at the deliciousness of my choice. But I had to admit that I'd never had the wine before and picked it because the label looked expensive. They rib me about that to this day, recalling the days when I wasn't such a 'wine snob.'
Companionship and conversation are what I cherish most about drinking wine. When I'm with friends and family, it usually doesn't matter what's in the bottle, as long as the wine is well-made and the conversation interesting. I cannot imagine eating dinner without a glass of wine, and as difficult as times are now, wine for me is a necessity. I'd give up my favorite food, cheese, before I'd stop buying wine.
With the economic disaster, workers getting pink slips, taxes soaring and some of us looking under the sofa cushions for loose change, drinking wine at dinner can be a comfort, helping to bring people together at the table for a deep breath and stimulating conversation. Even the most humble of dishes, such as hamburgers and macaroni and cheese, taste better when they're accompanied by a bottle of wine passed around the table. With so many tasty wines available for under $15 -- less than the cost of a large take-out pizza -- wine does not have to be seen as an unaffordable luxury.
Trade down to less expensive bottles. Look for retailers to slash prices, particularly at the higher end (you'd be surprised how many $20 wines taste as good as $50 bottlings; what they lack in prestige, they gain in value). Purchase affordable wines by the case, which usually rewards with discounted pricing.
Try inexpensive, imported white varietals such as Torrontes from Argentina, South African Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner from Austria (the 2007 Berger Gruner Veltliner is my current every-day white wine, costing about $13 for 1 liter) and sparkling Prosecco from Italy and cava from Spain. Off-dry Riesling from Washington state and dry roses from California, France and Australia can be had for under $15, perfect for spring and summer.
For reds, put Pinot Noir purchases on hold, as there aren't many interesting wines in this price range. Malbec from Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Rhone-style blends from Chile, and warm, fruity reds from southern Italy, Spain and Côtes du Rhône can offer tremendous values, so try something new if you drink mostly American wine now. Large California and Washington wine companies, including Beringer, Columbia Crest, Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson continue to make competent wines at the lower price tiers.
Drink from your cellar, if you have one (you know you have too much wine in there, anyway). If you have extra cash, buy discounted wines now for rainy days later. Forgo the movies and host a wine tasting, with guests instructed to bring a $15-or-under bottle which they're never tried before. Sip and discuss.
Alas, Pearl's pink Champagne is well out of my price range these days, but she also was a bargain hunter. An incredibly good pink sparkler that I'm sure she'd love, the non-vintage Yellowglen 'Pink' sparkling wine from Southeastern Australia, won Best of Show Sparkling Wine at the San Diego International Wine Competition two weeks ago, and it's flat-out delicious. Pink is not as complex as rose Champagne, of course, but with its $12 suggested retail price -- and often discounted -- it's a great drink for these tough times.