Wednesday, May 16, 2007

White Merlot

Is this an actual wine? Or is it Hawaiian Punch? Or is it something whereupon it touches your lips your nerve endings hit the REJECT button and you spray it across the table?

The Sutter Home White Merlot that we drank in a blind tasting of cheap, mass-market wines on Tuesday at Seppi's was, hands down, the worst wine we tasted that day. Worse than any White Zinfandel "blush" concocted by Franzia, ever. We were all in agreement on that, if on no other wine that afternoon.

The tasting was organized by Robin Goldstein, Mr. Fearless Critic himself, recently decamped to Austin after several years on the I-91 corridor, publishing books on where to eat and where to avoid eating AT ALL COSTS in New Haven and the Northampton/Pioneer Valley area of Massachusetts. It's him that I have to thank for introducing me to Roy Ip and Le Petit Cafe, and Roy that I have to thank for inviting me to the tasting. There is no better way to play hooky mid-week than to run off to New York on a perfect spring day to begin drinking lots of wine at 1:00 in the afternoon. Lady of leisure manque, c'est moi.

First, mad props to my tasting table compatriots Tom, Chris and Dave, all urologists at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Drinking wine in the afternoon with urologists is wonderful. After the first flight we had a long chat about Things That No Longer Gross Them Out.

The tasting was set up so that each of about eight tables had six bottles of wine in the middle, all wrapped in brown bags and labeled with a number. We were to sample each wine and immediately record our impressions as to its aroma, its taste, its other desirable or undesirable qualities, and how much we would pay for said bottle of wine at the grocery store. (Each of the wines we sampled was to have cost under $15 and be available widely in grocery stores or basic liquor stores; excluded, then, were many inexpensive-yet-wonderful wines from lesser-known regions that might not be easy to find outside knowledgeable wine shops). We were encouraged to be as blunt, honest, and perhaps sarcastic as we needed to be to express our true love or loathing for the wines in question. After each flight of six wines, the table was to move as a group to the next table over to sample another six. This happened three times: a group of rose wines, another of white, and another of red. Our opinions would be recorded and synthesized for the upcoming book, edited by Robin, entitled Cheap Wine Review.

First quick generalization: As a rule, my taste in wine was the exact opposite of that of all of my tablemates, including that of the sommelier from a well-known restaurant on the Upper West Side who joined us partway through. Things I liked, they hated. Things they liked, I spat out. Quick generalization #2: Cheap wines are very, very sweet. This is a wonderful quality in a well-balanced Riesling, an off-dry Gewurtztraminer, a ripe Muscadet. Not in a Chardonnay. Not in a "White Merlot". Certainly not in a Shiraz. However, this is not to discount the opinion of my fellow tasters: it may be that the memory of my overly-sweet and underly-cooked lemon pancakes from the VASTLY overrated Norma's at breakfast was lingering too near in my memory.

We got the roses over with first. (Pardon my lack of accents aigus and other diacritics -- I don't know how to make them in Blogger.) Please note that I adore a good rose. They can be wonderful summer wines. There were two that I tasted that I might have enjoyed at home (and, in fact, after the wines were revealed at the end, I realized that I had enjoyed one of them at home -- the Marques de Cacera), but on the whole, they tasted like Raspberry Diet Rite. With extra aspartame. We were all grateful to move on to the whites.

It was at this point that James the sommelier joined us. We all sat up straighter in our chairs and began to rinse our glasses between tastes. James told us the story of how, at a recent blind tasting of wines at a fellow sommelier's bachelor party, he snuck a bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz in with the heavy-hitters. His friends, all professional wine drinkers, couldn't quite tell what it was, concluding that it was not great but surprisingly well-balanced, nice fruit notes, etc. When he tore off the brown wrapping, many of the assembled guests demanded non-disclosure agreements with the rest of the guests there.

We tasted the whites, all of which I identified as Chardonnay (in the end, I was wrong, but only by two). One of the wines was corked, according to James -- a first for me, and I am so pleased to know, at last, what a corked wine tastes and smells like (think your grandmother's attic). Again, the one I liked was reviled by the rest ("number three smells like a baby's ass"). About the favorite, number two, I had written, "This is the '70s cliche of California in a bottle -- sweet, buttery, over-oaked, cheap cheap cheap Chardonnay." About number two, James said, "I thought it was balanced, nuanced, much more interesting than it needs to be for a wine at this price point. A lovely Viognier."

I was crestfallen. I love Viognier. How could I have been so wrong about a wine I have professed to love? Am I really that snobby person who is so easily seduced by the name of an under-grown grape? I blushed furiously and struggled mightily to come up with a witty way to save myself. I couldn't. I didn't even try.

James called Robin over to our table to ask what wine #2 had been, since it was well-received by the group at large. Robin consulted his labyrinthine chart of numbers and cross-references for several minutes, then delivered the verdict: Wine #2 at our table was a Yellow Tail Chardonnay.

"The best-selling wine in the world," said Robin.

I will say no more on this matter.

Everyone in our group was anxious to taste the reds, which we shouldn't have been. Gross generalization #3: if you are going to take a chance on bringing a cheap wine to a party, make it a cheap white. Cheap supermarket reds are so, so terrible. Red wine should not be sweet AND tannic AND high-alcohol. Most cheap reds seem to be all three. Or at least five of the six we tasted were. The only one that had any dryness, elegance, and depth of character was the Chianti I tried (another first for me). A distant second was Cline's Red Truck. The rest were not worth mentioning, aside from the sneaky trick Robin pulled in putting TWO bottles of Yellow Tail Shiraz at each of the tables to see whether we would say different things about them. Honestly, after three hours of lots of tasting and not much spitting, I don't remember what I wrote about them aside from "SWEEEEET!" And not "sweet" meaning sweeeeeeet.

I am very curious about seeing the Cheap Wine Review in print after this experience. I didn't talk to many people at the event aside from Roy and the others at our table, but I do wonder if my preference for dry, lean wines will be the outlier that's averaged out of the overall opinions of these wines. I like a wine that smells more floral than it tastes and that doesn't hit you over the tongue with an alcohol afterburn. I'm anxious to see what my fellow tasters end up preferring, and what, in the end, makes for a "good" cheap wine. I wonder if I'll agree, or if I'll use the book to pick the Least Favorite Wines as a guide to what I'll like instead.

Aside from the White Merlot.

And hey! Do you want to taste cheap wine, too? Do you live near me? Roy is hosting a tasting for the book at Le Petit Cafe on June 23rd -- let me know if you want to go.


At 10:22 AM, Blogger merleaux said...

"number three smells like a baby's ass"

now is that supposed to mean bad or good?

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Flutephobia said...

Bebe what a great post!
I also like lean wines. Fervently.
I just had a rose last week that was much better than the Marques de Cacera that I will tell you about. And it was as cheap as the Marques.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger zp said...

I like cheap wines, and like I said in my comments on Reading Terminal, etc, I'm moving to New Haven. Very soon. I've even shared a friendly hello with Mr. Ip, as one of my best friends lived for years in New Haven and I helped him move out last summer and he took me to LPB at a thank you.

But I think I'm actually busy that weekend. If those plans disappear, though, I'd love to go.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger zp said...

I meant LPC, as in Le Petit Cafe. I (whoops) thought it was a, um, bistro.

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Burke your teh-ologian. said...

Girl #1: When I get rich I'm going to spend all of my money on art.
Girl #2: Me, too.
Girl #1: And wine. But really cheap wine, so I have more money to spend on art.
Girl #2: Well, it's not like you drink anything but wine from a box now. You'll be fine.

--Galeria Ramis Barquet, Chelsea

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Robin Goldstein said...

Enjoyed your funny write-up. BTW, there was also a $40 bottle of Chablis 1er Cru snuck into that white flight. Incidentally, speaking of Overheard in New York, its founder, Morgan Friedman, was also at the Seppi's tasting. -Robin

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Twink said...

Yes yes, but what did they say about the Boone's Farm Wild Island?

And also, this is why I drink cheap wine. It's sweet! If a $15 wine is sweet, just think how much sweeter a $3 wine is!


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