Once upon a time when I was young and foolish, someone gave me a $100 gift card to a fancy restaurant in the Capital Region. I was on a first date with someone new and wanted to impress her so we went to a very nice place where I attempted my best James Bond impersonation. The waiter handed me a wine list that was about the size of the King James Bible so I had no clue which bottle to order. My date seemed equally clueless so I snapped the menu closed and said, “Tell so and so (I knew the owner by name) it’s me and I trust his judgment, so have him send out whatever bottle he’d recommend.” Big mistake.
I don’t recall the name of the wine—only that it was very old and the waiter treated the bottle as if he were carrying a newborn baby. I remember the whole room went hush when he popped the cork and poured out a small amount for me to taste. I had no idea what I was doing but I’ve seen the movie “Sideways” about ten times so I was channeling Paul Giamatti when I gave it a good swirl, sniff, taste, then motioned for him to continue pouring. I thought I was so cool. Until the bill came. The bottle the owner had chosen was $90 so I just burned through my entire gift card on four glasses of wine that tasted pretty much like the ten-dollar bottle I could buy at the corner store.
I thought of that life lesson when I saw this month’s issue of Capital Region Living is dedicated to food and wine. Food I’ve always been well schooled in but wine, not so much. It’s not that I haven’t had a chance to get good at it. It’s just that the information doesn’t sink in when someone is trying to teach me. Being on television, I am asked to host wine tasting fundraisers all the time and I’ve even attended VIP seminars usually reserved for rich people. I stand there nodding my head like I have a clue what the sommelier is talking about when he mentions how much astringency and baume the balthazar of bordeaux retained during the clarification and cuvaison process. Those are all real wine terms that mean something, by the way. See what I mean? So confusing.
The one thing I have picked up along the way at these wine tastings is you don’t have to drink all the wine. This is important if you plan to get up out of bed the next day. If you’ve never been to one, they have tables set up all over the place and at each table a vineyard or label may have a half dozen bottles to sample. They pour you just a smidge and wait for you to try it. As a beginner, you don’t want to be rude so you down the whole thing as if you were pledging a fraternity. This is bad strategy because you are loopy by the time you reach your third table. I learned the best thing to do is swish it around, taste just a drop, arch one eyebrow and say, “interesting.” Then dump the rest and run away.
Another thing I’ve noticed at wine tastings is how much better the silent auction items appear to be as you drink more wine. Example: You walk in and see the charity is trying to sell a weekend at the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid for $400. You do some quick calculations in your head and think, “I could probably get the same deal on my own and I’m not getting into a bidding war with some fool.” One hour later, after consuming half the wine in Napa Valley, you are suddenly in a bidding battle with some guy named Trevor and you’ve just written down a $1,200 bid with three exclamation points!!! That’ll show him.
All kidding aside, the best way to buy wine is to find a good store and talk to people who work there. One of my favorites is All Star Wine in Latham and I’ve gotten some great tips from the owner Craig Allen. Once, I was looking for a cheap red wine and he suggested the Francis Ford Coppola Rosso which you can usually find for about seven bucks. No, that’s not a typo—just seven dollars. It’s fantastic and your guests will never believe you spent under ten bucks.
I see when it comes to space for this column, the bottle is almost empty so let me end with something to make you giggle. A grasshopper walks into a bar and the bartender shouts out, “Do you know we have a drink named after you?” To that the grasshopper responds, “You have a drink called Clarence?” Oh come on, you smiled a little. I saw it.