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Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

The Naked Vine Sprouts

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Remember: Good wine is well-spoiled grape juice. All else follows.

I recently leafed through an issue of Gourmet magazine to check out their "Best Wines for Grilling." I did a double take. Don't get me wrong - I leaf through that magazine every month to get new ideas. When the cheapest recommended selection on a rack of pinots to accompany your freshly flame-caressed piece of tastiness is close to $30, something's amiss.

I love good wine. I'm willing to splurge from time to time - but my basement doesn't look like the wine cellar at The Capital Grille. Most days I want something I can afford on the salary of a university employee. A friend of mine whom I'll shamelessly plagiarize once said, "The trick isn't finding a good $50 bottle. The trick is finding a good $10 bottle."

I agree wholeheartedly. The Naked Vine is born.

If you're someone who doesn't want to worry about "notes of cigar box and elderberry" when you're trying to keep your dinner from burning, or if you aren't in search of a wine with the complexity of a P.T. Anderson film as you're kicking back at the end of another crushing day at the office, my hope is that you'll find something useful.

According to the California-based Wine Institute, of the 313 million cases of wine sold in the United States in 2007, only around 12% of that total was in what was considered the "ultra premium" category -- upwards of $14 a bottle. However, those wines dominate most wine reviews. Perusing the major epicurean magazines (Gourmet, Food &Wine, Wine Spectator, etc.) a reader is hard pressed to find more than two or three bottles discussed under that price.

My goal is to offer you a couple of suggestions for everyday consumption. Everything I select will be under $15. I'll be looking for wines that are easy to drink, easy to get to know, and generally easy to find. My aim isn't to pick up Paul Giamatti's now-legendary "flutter of edam cheese." I want to give you a broad idea of what to expect - so take my analysis with a grain of salt (or a cracker).

This, logically, brings us back around to grilling. Here are a few pretty flexible wines that hold their own with just about anything you want to put over fire. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are the most common varietals to drink with grilled meats. (note: "varietal" is WineSpeak for "type of grape used in wine") I'll leave them behind for now.

Castle Rock 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir - Thanks to the already-referenced Sideways - pinot noir prices have gone through the roof in the last couple of years (counterbalanced by the plunge in demand for merlot - which is a subject for another day...). Inexpensive, good pinots have virtually disappeared from the market. When one comes along, it's smart to enjoy it while you can. Got seasoned chicken or a nice pork chop - or even marinated, grilled tofu? Try this one. Castle Rock reminds me of a slow walk in a cherry orchard, fragrant and silky. I get a little plum in a flavor that's "thicker" than a lot of pinots - perfect for the backyard. Nice and mild. A $10-12 bottle.

J. Lohr 2004 Riverstone Chardonnay - another winner at right around $10-12, The Lohr chardonnay - crisp, sweet nose - some apple, perhaps. A little sweet when it first hits your tongue, but that sweetness settles out quickly into the buttery taste and citrus that this chard is known for. The long oaky finish would go exceptionally well with grilled fish, chicken, pork, or veggies. Like most chardonnays (and most whites, for that matter), it shouldn't be ice cold. Unlike the beer in your cooler, it's best to let this wine warm up a little bit. Cold compresses the flavor of wine - you get the full flavor if it's around 50 degrees or so.

Altos 2006Malbec- Got meat? Love steak, ribs, or other big juicy slabs that hearken back to the Pleistocene? Altos Malbec, a great addition to the wine market from Argentina, is the perfect wine for you. Argentineans love big meat dishes - a friend of mine who journeyed there recently had a chance to dine on a 20 oz. filet mignon. Malbec was used as a blending wine by the French and Spanish - rarely standing on its own until something magical happened when the vine was imported to the Andes. While not as big as a cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel (not white zinfandel, mind you) - this wine comes at you big and fruity - pepper and ripe berries. This wine has a nice amount of tannin (which is that not-quite-bitter taste you get from red wines), which allows it to accompany anything that's been drawn over the coals. Altos tastes a little chocolatey, a little peppery, and finishes with a nice additional dose of that berry taste. I've seen Altos for around $8 a bottle, an absolute steal. Truth be told, this has been my favorite "grillin' wine" for the last two summers.

Until next time…make mine medium rare.

(Got a comment? Suggestion? Question? Opinion? Send it to Mike at thenakedvine@yahoo.com)

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