Readers' questions, many of which cover similar ground, arrive weekly. It's time once again to put those queries together and come up with a group response to those you've asked the most. I love answering reader mail, and it pinches me in the nicest way to know that people care enough to write.
What gives with merlot? Ten years ago, I had to get on waiting lists to purchase some of my favorites, and anything with merlot on the label seemed to fly off the shelf.
Demand equals oversupply. You've seen it in dolls: Remember when Beanie Babies were predicted to amass fortunes for collectors? Or when a waiting list was in your future if you wanted a Honda Accord? (Now they're all on year-end clearance like "normal" cars.) We are a fickle nation that loses interest quickly and is always looking for something new. The best merlots are still terrific and pricey (think of Duckhorn, Beringer, Bancroft Ranch or any top Pomerol). But when the trade rushed to get a merlot to market before the next guy, a sea of mediocrity engulfed us all. Today, asking an informed merchant or reading about what's good among the huge output is necessary. Remember that price is not always an indicator of quality.
My best friend loves wine. I know next to nothing but get to drink like a king whenever I visit her. Should I buy her wine for her birthday or as a holiday gift?
Your heart is in the right place, but, sadly, the answer is no. You've got two strikes against you when buying for a specialist. You wouldn't buy a toothbrush, no matter how state of the art, for a dentist, nor the latest in wrench technology for a plumber. If someone is really wine crazy, don't go there—unless you know she's a big fan of a specific wine. Then, the latest release, or an older vintage of said wine, will bring a big smile and a lasting memory.
I've been collecting high-end reds for years. I have read reviews from specialty publications and have invested in wines with the idea that they will increase in value as well as serve my drinking pleasure. My question is: What do I do now? I've gone way overboard and I find that I no longer even like some of the wine varieties that I've purchased heavily. Where do I turn for help in selling them? I bought many wines by mail or at auction.
As you've discovered, it's easy to get carried away with buying the best of the best when they come to market. If you can afford it, this is a grand hobby (safer than gambling or extracurricular mating games), but it can easily escalate to addiction as the wines keep coming, your bank balance shrinks, and the piles of cases grow.
Even if you bought your wines elsewhere, many serious wine retailers will help give you an idea of how desirable these wines are today. Just like needing a lawyer or a physician who is immersed in his profession, you need help from a pro. A great Web site, winefetch.com, provides a range of current retail pricing.
Loss of interest, the development of a wine allergy, the need to pay sudden unexpected bills and (gulp) divorce are among the many reasons people decide to break up their "babies." To those who may be thinking of embarking on such a hobby, get some live advice right away to steer you toward sure bet estates. You wouldn't spend thousands in the stock market without consulting a broker. Or would you?
I have a number of California cabernets and zinfandels of recent vintage. Most taste terrific to me right now. What value, if any, is there in aging them any further?
Many people have the misconception that if a bottle of wine tastes hard, unyielding, strong and alcoholic, then this wine just needs time so all the parts can come together. At least that was the spiel about 25 years ago coming from West Coast producers of big, "trophy" wines. Nonsense! A good wine actually tastes good upon release. I think of the 2002 Napa Valley cabernets, the 2001 Chianti Riservas or Barossa Valley shiraz from 1998. These tasted fabulous right out the door. What the good ones all have in common is balance. If the wine has a beautiful balance on your palate, perfume, texture, richness and a firm but not mouth-searing finish, the chances that it will keep—and in many cases improve—are excellent. Be very wary of a new wine that is not pleasant.
As more and more superior restaurants open in the Triangle, the idea of bringing a special bottle to a restaurant becomes more alluring. How can I be sure that the establishment will allow this?
I have not heard of a single restaurant that will not let you bring your own wine. However, a corkage fee (to open the bottle, provide decent glassware and pour the wine) is almost always charged. These fees usually fall into the $7-$15 per bottle range. Some charge up to $25, which I think is a bit of a friendship quasher. Bottom line: Call ahead to find out the policy. Either accept it or go somewhere else.
Some restaurants will not allow you to bring a wine that is offered on their list. I find this to be fair. It's one thing to bring a special wine to enjoy. It's quite another to bring a $7 Columbia Crest bottle that you bought today and expect this to go over well. I would not abuse the corkage issue. Either bring along something special or bite the bullet and buy from their list.
As to restaurants that charge exorbitant prices—say, $30 for an $8 retail bottle—I would make a note at each restaurant you attend. Some are much fairer than others. I would mention a huge price discrepancy to the sommelier or restaurant manager. You'd be surprised how much they listen to customer input. Knowledgeable complaints will help to bring down costs. If you find a restaurant that only charges 100 percent above retail, then congratulate them on their fairness.
Here's a wacky rule of thumb: The more expensive the bottle is at retail, the smaller the markup charged by a restaurant.
I don't like wine at "room temperature." I like it colder. Am I the odd exception?
No. Room temperature was conceived long before central air and heating existed. So-called room temperature is really in the lower 60s Fahrenheit. My wines come from my basement at about 62 degrees, so I'm lucky. If you are in a 75-degree room, chill down your red for 45 minutes in the refrigerator. Voila! A perfect glass of refreshment. While we're at it, don't drink your whites straight out of the fridge; good quality whites should be taken out about 15 minutes before serving. (Only rot-gut should be served so cold as to totally obliterate any taste. Grad school students, freeze away.)
I want to enjoy sweet wines. I see Sauternes, Muscat de Frontignan, rieslings, Piccolit and Tokay all brightly shining at me on the shelves—slyly winking about their opulence and decadence. When do I drink these?
Our lifestyle (the rich and famous excepted) seldom allows for time spent at the table after the main course has finished. Before the ice cream and cake arrive, here is your chance. Ask family and friends to try a special sweet wine with some simple butter cookies. The best dessert wines have sweetness as a fraction of their component and reason to exist. These wines take on the same complexities that your older reds do. They are a bounty of nuts, stone fruits, and expansive, exotic elements. The flavors are explosions of ripe fruits, yet with a marvelous acidity that makes the finish clean and uncloying. Cheaper sweet wines may be fun, but they'll ultimately disappoint—you'll want to pour them over your ice cream. But the good ones, well, they're dessert in a glass; wines to ponder, sip at leisure and talk away the day's difficulties.
On a budget, try the light, fresh Moscato d'Asti from Italy. It is delightful and a good introduction to the more explosive possibilities down the lane.
Most food pairings that I see with wine are all carnivorously based. How can I enjoy my vegetarian dishes with wine along for the ride?
More writers are considering vegetarian match-ups in their reviews. Articles at www.wineloverspage.com are very good and helpful. Just type in "wine and vegetarian food."
Arturo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.