There are wines in the world that are renowned far and wide for their quality and excellence. Most of these need no advertising, and certainly no endorsements from me. They have been touted by the lofty, had their virtues extolled by the eminent, and, generally, been quaffed by the well-heeled. Often, they are drunk not so much for their savor as for their savoir-vivre: their ability to show that the host for the evening is a worldly-wise tenant of the globe.
For the great spike-heeled masses of us, however, these are once in a lifetime experiences to taste. Few of us can afford to pop a bottle of, say, Château Haut Petrus-Lafite-Opus with our takeout Chinese; likewise with the rest of the world of “fine” wines that run into three and four digits to the left of the decimal place.
On top of all that, let’s face it; if you’ve ever been to a wineshop, and have taken a moment to look at these éminence grises, you know that they just aren’t all that presentable. I mean, where’s the eye-catching flash, the marketing savvy, the flair for attracting attention? Most of them have plain labels unadorned by more than, say, a picture of the owner’s house, or perhaps his face beaming out at you like Aunt Jemima from the syrup bottle.
My task, therefore, is to offer up a selection of wines that, to coin a phrase (sorry, Charlie), not only tastes good, but has good taste. The rules? Eye-catching bottle, a certain level of simplicity that allows you to figure out what’s in the bottle, and, I have to like the wine.
These are my picks for wines that will show class on your table, and even more in the glass.
Zardetto Prosecco, from Italy, is a dry, light, crisp, perfectly drinkable wine in a very cool package that turns the label on its side and prints it right on the bottle. To top it all off, this one should run you right around $10. Jordan “J” is definitive California style – lots of fruit, lots of concentration, and consistent quality, and the simple green bottle with a bold handwritten “J” as its only adornment is certainly an eye-catcher – this one is more than worth the mid-$20s pricetag. At the high end of my range, squeaking in just under $100 is my favorite from Champagne, Krug “Grande Cuvee,” with its full-bodied flavors. The extra wide-flared bottle stands out from the crowd, the bronze-toned label is very elegant, and the name is synonymous with class.
A WALK ON THE WHITE SIDE
I love Sauvignon Blancs, and two have really caught my eye and my tastebuds over the last couple of years. For those of you who enjoy the traditional crisp, dry, grassy and herbal style, my pick is Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. The distinctive label, a narrow green and white strip running from top to bottom of the bottle, will invite immediate comment from your guests, the wine is just as racy, and the price comes in under $20. If you like your Sauvignons a bit rounder, with some oak and buttery components, try California’s Dry Creek Vineyards Fume Blanc Reserve. The sailboat shape and theme to the label will be perfect for your next yachting party, and the cover charge is under $15.
Italian wines and grapes are also a fave, and Pinot Grigio is probably the quintessential white variety. From the northeast of Italy, Walter Filiputti Pinot Grigio comes in with all the flavor I want and a very cool photo-byte collage label that’s fun to drop on the table. The $25 pricetag may seem steep for Pinot Grigio, but this one’s worth the extra bucks. From up in Oregon, the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Grigio is always welcome on my table, especially as it rarely drains much over $10 from my wallet. Grab a bottle and soar like the hawk on the label. I suppose one has to include Chardonnay in a look at white wines, especially when including domestic production. There are so many out there that it is hard to choose, so I went for somewhat higher-end quality. From California, with a $35 tag, I love the look, not to mention the taste, of Lewis Cellars Reserve Chardonnay. The simple, but striking “glowing L” on the label will grab anyone’s attention at the table. From Italy, not usually a first pick in the Chardonnay races, comes what is usually just called “Dreams.” The full name is Silvio Jermann, “Where the Dreams Never End,” a specialty production item with a rainbow label that changes color scheme with each vintage. This quality wine is worth the $50 or more charge.
There are a multitude of white wines out there, but I can’t go on forever (and neither can dinner), so what better way to finish than with a dessert wine. Top pick, all around, for packaging class, has to go to Far Niente “Dolce,” a late harvest wine from California. The bottle has a hand-painted grapevine look that you’ll love and the wine is a real winner as well. Worth the $50 that it costs to pick one up.
THE RED ZONE
Again, there are so many to choose from that it is hard to even start narrowing them down. I will up front just say that the quality of each of these selections is exceptional, especially for their cost. I will whiz through these a bit faster than the whites, so get thee to a wineshop.
Rosemount Estate Shiraz from Australia is well-known for its distinctive diamond-shaped label, and at $10 it is always a favorite. Also in the “easy on the wallet” category is an unusual one that I could drink every day and never get tired of it, Navarro-Correas Malbec from Argentina. There’s something about the frosted glass bottle and simple label design that caught my eye years ago and the wine has never failed to please. The interesting logo is reminiscent of the winged lion label on another entry, Brutocao Zinfandel from California, that ups the ante to around $15 and delivers on consistent, year-to-year quality.
Pinot Noirs are always among my favorites, and two Americans, both from Oregon, and both in the $15-20 range, top the list. For pure eye-catching attention, Benton Lane Pinot Noir is right up there. A dark bottle with a painted-on label that looks like a large postage stamp will grab you as you walk by it on the shelf. So will the wine. For simple graphic elegance, Panther Creek Pinot Noir is a winner not only for its colors and bands of lines, but as one of the best American Pinots around.
I felt like I had to give France an entry here, though, to be honest, it is rare that I see attention-getting packaging coming from this particular European neighbor. One that has always caught my eye is a simple, yet tasty $15 wine from the south of France, La Cuvee Mythique. I have a thing for owls, and the medieval owl design warms my little heart right off the bat.
Remember that simple diamond design from Australia? We have a similar yet distinctive entry from right here in the U.S. of A. Von Strasser “Diamond Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon is a current fave at $30, and the blue and gold quadrangle of a label will impress even your least favorite designer friend. Simple rectangles and squares adorn two other favorites of mine. Newton Vineyards “Unfiltered” Merlot is not only the better of Newton’s Merlots, but one of the better of California’s Merlots – and worth the $30 tag. The black and red theme is simple and classy. A similar label design in blue and white, and even simpler, comes on a bottle of Sandrone “Cannubi Boschis” Barolo from Italy. In my ever-so-humble opinion, this is one of the finest Barolos made, and at $65 or so, a real steal.
For absolute class in packaging and product, what is probably my favorite California red (and at $45 it’s a whole lot better than some of the so-called “top” California wines), Mt. Veeder Reserve, a meritage blend from Napa Valley, has an elegant copperplate look that I love, and the wine will thrill anyone who loves California style.
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.