Eugene Weekly : Wine : 6.7.07

Empyrean Wines
How to experience the rare jewels

“Oh, it’s you.” Not a friendly greeting; not a friendly guy. Maybe 6 feet tall, 200 lbs., a little paunchy, close-cropped gray hair, gray eyes, clean-shaven, long nose he was looking down at me. He wore a cream-yellow golf shirt, brown slacks, nice cordovan Cole Haan loafers peeking beneath crisp cuffs. We stood before shelves of French Burgundies. He gripped his shopping list, probably culled from pages of Parker’s Wine Advocate, required reading for wine-fiends. I checked the guy, didn’t respond, smiled. He continued: “You never write about the great wines.” He tapped a long, tapered finger against a fine Burgundy wearing a $132 ticket. He pulled it off the shelf, tucked it under an arm. I just nodded, touched the brim of my battered fedora, meandered into sale wines.

Wine is not a drink for snobs and elites, though some part of the market has shaped up that way: thousand-dollar bottles of Burgundy, California cab at two grand, even Oregon pinots hitting C-notes. Among folk whose families have been making wine for centuries, such prices evoke head shakes and mutters. But if wine media and their marketeers can persuade economic upper-crusties that their status and self-esteem can be confirmed and announced by imbibing (or at least buying) such empyrean wines, all I can think to do is shrug and whisper, OK.

My first encounter with wine came when I was 10, living in what was then French Morocco. Before lunch at a French classmate’s house, his dad grabbed a couple of empty bottles and sent us running to the local store for refills, a vin rouge and a vin blanc. The old guy at the store filled the bottles from barrels, stuck a cork in each, cheap, no fuss — and no Puritanical posturing about our age. He knew this was family shopping; we could have been buying broccoli. And, in a way, we were; in places where wine is a common part of common life, it’s just another part — the liquid part — of a decent meal.

And so it should be.

This wine column has always been intended for people who wanted to add tasty quaff to good grub, shared with family and friends, and call that a good life. So we’ve pursued drinkable, affordable wines, but always looked for those that — for the money — delivered a little extra soupçon of flavor and style.

As for the great wines, we have to admit that market forces drive prices of “great” wines to heights unreachable by most of us. And anyone who gets seriously bitten by the wine bug should, we also admit, have the chance to savor those rare and superbly delicious vins usually reserved for economic lordlings. Experiencing a great wine can lay down an unforgettable flavor/aroma memory against which all others can be measured. They become our benchmarks, our yardsticks, summits on which we’ve planted our flags. So how to climb those unscalable peaks? Two simple strategies:

Group action: Singly we might be weak, but together we are strong.

We’re members of a tasting group, usually about 10 people, no snobs. We pool our dough, gain access to otherwise unreachable beauties. Dr. Mark Lyon anchors the group; he’s a clever buyer, keeps abreast of the wine press, owns a sensitive palate. He and his wife, Denise, put out a spread of tasty nibbles — cold meats, cheeses, salad, breads. The glassware is appropriate to the wines. Last week, we sipped through eight very good reds, all blind (the wines were in bags but we had a list for matching our guesses). All were priced from the high 20s to 60 bux, and included a good Bordeaux (2000 Pontet Canet), a top-quality zinfandel (Ridge ’05 Paso Robles), an Italian from the Piedmont region (Aldo Conterno ’03 Nebbiolo Langhe), a high-rated Oregonian (Patricia Green ’03 Pinot Noir), a top Cal (Pride ’04 Merlot, super wine), a French Rhone (Bosquet du Papes ’03), an Oregon twist on a Spanish red (Abacela ’04 Tempranillo). The wine that blew up the room was Australian: Two Hands ’04 Bella’s Garden Shiraz filled the air with berry aromas, filled the mouth with flavors of dark berries, hints of chocolate, sprinkle of pepper, all on a silky frame; made us reluctant to swallow. This was a Wine Spectator 95-point wine, #10 in the Top 100 of last year, retailed at about $60, probably can’t be found now (the ’05 can), probably has to rate as among the best shiraz ever to cross my lips. Without the group, I would never have had that pleasure.

Strategy II: Hit the road to wineries. Memorial Day opened the tasting season. Load your flivver with pals (and a designated driver) and roll around Oregon’s lovely valleys and into some charming facilities with lovely views. Most of the time, tasting fees are nominal, and you can enjoy close encounters with some unusual varieties (do not be afraid of Muller-Thurgau or baco noir). Go north, south, west; find out why Oregon has become a wine-lovers’ destination

Wine might not be for everybody (but what is?), but for those who seek a good life, it can play a lovely role. As for the snobs, in wine as in any other aspect of living, we can only wish them the joy of their own company.