The topic at hand is not the fermented grain but the fermented fruit. As you read this,
wineries throughout Napa and Sonoma are either starting to harvest their 2003 crop or
preparing to do so in the next couple of weeks. From there it gets crushed, fermented,
punched, fined, barreled and aged, probably with several steps between each process. After
several months to years, it then gets bottled and labeled just for your dining or sipping
pleasure. Sounds easy doesn’t it? The wine making process is actually a LOT more complex
than I make it sound.
What do I try?
Wine is much more than simply red and white. There are varying degrees of sweetness,
acidity, richness, aroma and finish. The list actually goes on and on. For starters, I suggest
trying different varietals other than the customary Cabernet or Chardonnay that you may
be used to drinking.
Merlots are usually “softer” and more drinkable as younger wines than Cabernets. They can
pair with the same types of foods as Cabernets or even with some of the darker poultry
meats. Sangioveses are a nice lighter alternative red that pairs well with Italian fare (it’s the
primary grape for Chianti). For those who prefer a traditional American grape, Zinfandels
can be as bold and complex to pair with hearty meat dishes or soft enough to go with
roasted fish dishes. Pinot Noirs – while not on the same level as the finest French
Burgundies – still pair well with many fish dishes as well as rich vegetarian fare. Finally,
traditional Rhone varietals such as Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah are finding their way
into blended reds as well as single bottlings. These wines usually mate with the lightest
vegetarian or seafood dishes all the way up to hearty meat and game dishes.
Next to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (or Fume Blanc coined by the “Dean” of Napa
Valley – Robert Mondavi) is probably the most popular white varietal. Vinified by itself
with very little oak, it produces a wide range of taste sensations such as bell pepper,
grapefruit, herbs and newly cut grass. This marries well with most seafood and even some
lighter poultry dishes. If blended with a bit of Semillon, it produces rich, luscious wines
that rival Chardonnays. Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio in Italy) makes floral scented wines
that are a classic pairing with pates’ and foie gras (Chateau D’Yquem supposedly pairs
splendidly with pates’ and foie gras but I can’t afford any). California also makes great
Viognier – very fruity, floral scent but not very sweet and great Rieslings – the low alcohol
and slight sweetness are perfect for spicier Chinese and Thai dishes. Finally, don’t dismiss
the over-looked Chenin Blanc (usually relegated to blended mylar “bagged” wines). In
France this varietal produces their magnificent Vouvrays which are perfect
accompaniments to creamy goat cheese – which California also produces.
I’m not talking about the’80s craze “White Zinfandel” here; I’m talking about true “rose
wine”. Traditional red grapes given very little skin contact time to produce salmon colored
wines with the same aromas of their red cousins but with a lighter bodied, easier drinking
dry wine that is the perfect all around food wine. This is the must-have wine with all types
of Mediterranean dishes –served slightly chilled like white wines, perfect for those hot
summer days or Indian Summer. California produces a wide variety of blush or rose wine –
usually blends of Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault or Syrah though there also are blush
Pinot Noirs which are great.
Though technically not true “Champagnes,” some California wineries rival some of the best
Champagne houses. Perhaps it’s because California produces Chardonnay grapes on par
with the best houses of Burgundy. Though we haven’t cracked the Pinot Noir code that
Burgundy has, Pinot Noir produced in the Champagne region wouldn’t exactly produce
Romanee Conti either. Perhaps it’s because California also produces its sparkling wine in
the Methode Champenoise with the same bottle “riddling” employed in France. Or perhaps
it’s because we let our wines “sit” on the yeast as long as the French do. In any case, you’ll
find California sparkling wines the perfect match for deep fried fare or fresh raw seafood.
The only main choices are Blanc de Blanc – sparkling wines made primarily of Chardonnay,
Blanc de Noir – sparkling wines made primarily of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier or Brut –
a blend of all three.
Isn’t wine drinking “healthy”?
As reported in “60 Minutes” on the French Paradox where French citizens have a lot lower
rate of heart disease despite consuming rich, fat and cholesterol laden foods, the jury is still
not out on wine or alcoholic beverages for that matter being “healthy”. The antioxidants
(resveratrol, etc.) found in red wine are also found in red grape juice. It’s also impossible to
run a scientific randomized, placebo controlled, blinded study looking at the effects of
alcoholic beverages because people KNOW when they are drinking alcohol. The take-
home message is if you do drink, limit yourself to one to two drinks per day (12 ounces of
beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of hard liquor) one drink per day for women and
remember that one to two per day isn’t the same as seven to 14 per week.
Sample wines by the glass
If you simply want to try one glass before purchasing a whole bottle, I suggest trying First
Crush for lunch. Located on Cyril Magnin at Ellis St., they offer a variety of wines by the
glass. Some of their selections aren’t usually available to the average consumer. On
separate occasions, I had a Dehlinger Chardonnay and a Spelletich Zinfandel, difficult if
not impossible to find by the bottle at your local retailer, much less so by the glass. They
also pour various “flights” of wines – usually one-third or one-half glass of two or three
different Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs or even different red or white varietals so that you
can compare wines side by side. And the food…the perfect pairing with a nice glass of
wine. For starters, the Calamari was fried just until the light batter gave the perfect crunch
as you bit into the tender rings. The Crab Cakes had chunks of lump crab meat served on a
bed of sautéed leeks in a mustard cream sauce. The Duck Spring Roll featured shredded
duck meat filling a nicely fried spring roll served with a sweet barbecue sauce. The Penn
Cove Mussels were the smallest I’ve seen – about the size of a grape but oh so tender. This
was the only dish that I would have prepped differently. It was served with a light cream
sauce; I would have opted for a light tomato/saffron sauce. The Crush Salad featured
apples, bleu cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries on a bed of butter lettuce. Finally, their
Halibut Sandwich had the fish cooked to flaky perfection on lightly toasted brioche. They
do change their menu often so you may only see one or two of the aforementioned menu
They do take reservations through the Opentable.com Website (though be forewarned
that Open Table says lunch starts at 11 a.m., they actually open at 11:30 a.m.). I suggest
trying First Crush for lunch with several friends where you can be bold enough to order a
bottle Marcassin or Williams-Selyem…or two (I recommend lunch for most restaurants
since most of the menu is the same except for slightly lower prices).
101 Cyril Magnin
San Francisco, CA 94102
Lunch: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun.-Wed. 5 p.m.-12 a.m.; Th.-Sat. 5 p.m.-1a.m.
The Other White Wine