December Wine Romp: Deciding in Uncertainty

Unmade Plans and Slumming for Wine in Gramercy (Some wines of the Early Winter)

           It’s a typical early winter evening—dark around six—when I finally crawl out of my apartment and head to the wine store, something I usually relish. Today though, work has kept me busy non-stop and left me spent. I’m hardly capable of simple decisions, let alone one that considers and matches flavors. Especially for dinner that’s still uncertain.

Deciding in Uncertainty

           Sure, I know what’s in the fridge. In the cabinets. But, have no idea of how this will all fall together as a meal—that involves yet more thought, and further decisions. That is if I can even push myself to cook.

           We might just order out.

            Pushing open the door on Gramercy Wines and Spirits, I look down the rows of wines filling the walls on either side. California, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Australia, the signs read. Beckon. Expect.

            Too much right this moment my spent mind says. Too much.

            For a moment, I stare vacantly into the depths of the store, wondering if I shouldn’t just turn around and go home.

The Discount Bin & Simpler Choices

            Then I glance down at the barrels just inside the door. The discount and clearance wines unceremoniously piled atop on another. Red and white both. Of no particular style, region or grape. All uniformly cheap.

            Normally I avoid these wines. Owing a bit to a sense of no longer having to slum—that’s what I bought when I was broke in and right out of school. And a bit to usually enjoying the process of choosing wines, tailoring them to my needs at that moment.

            But tonight, I have no energy for snobbishness. More expensive wines demand more thought—more money is on the line after all. And my needs are simple right now—to find something basic, unparticular, to have the flexibility to get along nicely with whatever we might end up eating. Or at least not clash.

            So, I stop and look.

A Crap Shoot

            Looking over my wine choices, there are a couple I know but don’t care for. A couple that I’ve heard of but haven’t tasted. And more than a few I’ve never even seen before. 

            It’s a crapshoot, in other words, so by picking several there comes more chance of getting at least one right.

            The first choice is simple. It’s chilly out and so it will be red.  Picking up a  sampling of five red wines—I imagine that if the first one isn’t good, I’ll use it for a sauce or braise, and then move onto the next, and so on until we find one we like, or at least won’t fight with the dinner.

Back Home

           Back at home now, a second choice is made—we’re eating in. Now, I have to conjure that up out of leftovers and whatever else happens to be in the fridge, bits of remembered recipes, and a dash of luck.

            This I’ll have to do soon: My stomach’s growl grows louder.

A Glass for the Cook

            Before looking in the refrigerator again, I open the first bottle of wine for inspiration. Coppola’s California Red Table Wine— Nothing special but pleasing.

            And, as its flavors glide across my tongue, dishes start suggesting themselves. Since it doesn’t have many tannins but good acidity, a sort of vegetable mélange begins to assemble itself in my mind. With basmati rice.

            And, a sauce…

            Something bright, citrus-infused…


            Something creamy.

            Something with weight enough to match the wine, like a velouté that simple stock-based white sauce. Or Sauce Aurore, which adds tomato puree the velouté…. and thus dinner continues unfolding itself in my mind.

            The rice comes down and finds itself in boiling water, then vegetables are chopped, seared and sautéed, and a roux is made, then the stock, then the tomato puree…

            My dinner companion has arrived home.

            I pour her a glass of wine.

            She sips and smiles.

            The wine has done its job—pleased her.

            I’m counting on the food that the wine inspired will be as pleasing. And that they’ll play nice together.

            If not, well, it is only one weeknight dinner.

            Worse comes to worst, we’ll order out and have the second bottle open to try by the time the cavalry arrives.

            I’ve always found that it pays to have a plan B. Even if you’re not sure what plan A is at first.

Five wines under $20 †

            Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But affordable doesn’t have to mean boring. Bonus—not only are these wines guilt-free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines. Here for Cabernet Franc the other Cabernet.

            †(Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.) 

The five following wines were all in the discount/clearance bins at the front of Gramercy Wines and Spirits on 23rd Street on October 16th, 2003. All were under $10.00. They were all chosen for their inexpensiveness and relative similarities in being bigger red wines, at least as far as the label let me know. I knew a couple of one makers’ other wines and had heard of three other makers. About the Bordeaux’s maker, I had no clue.

At a Shop You Trust

In the end, they all pleased me well enough to try the experiment again at another bodega. But, this won’t work in every wine shop. The owner must actually care about what wines appear on the shelf. Otherwise, this is worse than a crapshoot, as the inexpensive wines put in front are there only because they are extra cheap and will make the owner a few extra bucks—at your taste bud’s expense. So, it pays to experiment at a shop with an overall selection you trust.

Francis Coppola
Red Table Wine
$9.99 retail †

I knew the name and like his movies, so I thought to give this one a try—he has a reputation to keep up, after all.

            It’s a field blend. The vintner just picks whatever grapes are in the field, regardless of type, vinifies them, then blends them together. At least one would hope they are picked and vinified separately as grapes mature at different times. Picking all varieties at once guarantees problems in ripeness. The blend, in this case, it is Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, and Sangiovese.

Deep plum, and firm legs. It has high alcohol, indicating definite ripeness. Or, perhaps overripeness and sunburned or raisiny flavors.

            The nose followed up on this with super-ripe dark fruits, raisins, and figs with a touch of exotic spice, like in mincemeat pie. And the very, almost over-ripeness of the grapes appeared on the palate as very ripe dark fruit flavors mixed with raisins, figs, and general dried fried fruit flavors. The very soft tannins flashed briefly mid-palate, before giving away to a pleasing general taste of dried fruits. It finished decently with some very fine tannins and noticeable acidity, with a touch of cinnamon and clove. Medium-bodied, and okay balance.

            Overall, a decent wine. Especially for the price. Worked as an aperitif, and improved with the vegetable melange. Personally, I would like to have seen more tannins, allowing it to match more foods, and giving it better structure and balance. Good as an aperitif, or a party beverage.

Christian Moueix
Kobrand importers
$9.99 retail

A blend of right bank grapes from various right bank “satellite” appellations and Pomerol from a very good vintage. Mostly Merlot, with some Cabernet Franc. (US law requires only 75% of the named grape to be in the bottle to allow the grape variety on the label.) The clear ruby with cranberry highlights suggests it will be in the lighter style for a Bordeaux, rather than a tannic monster or a jammy fruit bomb. The nose keeps this impression up with a simple profile of dark fruits, berries and a touch of earth.

            And, the palate follows along exactly. Medium-bodied, with dark fruit, and a touch of dusty earth, which then opens into solid acids and light tannins. It balances well. The medium-long finish doesn’t disappoint, though some might find it a shade tart for an aperitif. The finish continues the fine tannins with hints of dark fruits. The acids made this go quite well with beef brisket in a fig and prune sauce with aromatic herbs. I prefer more tannic wines, but that is pure chauvinism.  A fine wine for the price. But, best with food.

Smoking Loon
$9.99 retail †

            I knew the producer from a restaurant I had worked in, where we served their Chardonnay. Solid wine as I recalled, so I felt confident trying their Merlot.

And, I wasn’t disappointed. Light plum with cranberry highlights, and very clear, hinting at a lighter style.

            Yet, the nose didn’t agree with that appraisal. It came on full of cooked sugars, plums, berries and bright, very ripe red fruit.

A touch of earth also appeared here, with some smoke notes showing off the oak aging.

            The palate agreed with the nose more than the eyes.

A rush of general fruitiness, which then flashed tannins, and then gave way to solid acids, filling out into a medium to full body. The late palate gave way to the supple fruit that so many California Merlots have. Nice finish, with moderate red fruits, solid acids and fine tannins that kept going for some time. Very late, a hint of green peppers come through.

            Slightly tart, it goes best with food.

            Nice with a braised London broil with roasted root vegetables.

            In a word—pleasing. Possibly my favorite of the five.


I’m familiar with the producer. They make solid if not brilliant wines. But, this is only $9.99.

            A nice Washington State Bordeaux blend of 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Franc. (Yes, I know, 101%. It’s an up and coming wine area; allow them some hyperbole.) But still, watch this region for red wines. Especially Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. I was part of that tasting in which Washington State Cabernet Sauvignons were chosen over Napa’s and Bordeaux’s that currently appear advertised in all the wine magazines. It’s true. For reds that are approachable younger and at more reasonable prices, Washington State does have it going on.

            Deep plum in color, bright, with a clear edge. Solid legs, and corresponding alcohol content.

            The nose started off dusty, which I don’t much like. But this blew off after about ten minutes, leaving berries and cassis, with a decided layer of coconut from the American oak it aged in.

            The palate comes on as rich, extracted fruit, mostly berries, and cassis. Then firm tannins hit, with good acidity following. Full-bodied, pleasant, and balanced. Easy to approach. With a nice fruity finish of cassis, solid acids, and very fine tannins.

            A very nice wine for the price.

            Held it’s own as an aperitif as well as over cheeses and dried sausages.

            Best made of the five in my opinion: exactly a New World Bordeaux blend for under $10. But, it lacked a quirkiness that the Smoking Loon and the Stonehedge Petite Sirah (below) had that, for me, really makes an outstanding wine.

Petite Sirah
$9.99 retail†

I know the maker. I’ve written about their Pinot Noir before. So, this one I also had a lot of confidence in.

            It ended up one of the two I liked best.

            Deep, dark and rich in color. Almost inky. Like a dark plum. Couldn’t see through. This says it should be highly extracted. A fruit bomb.

            And, that is exactly what the nose indicated. Dark fruits, right upfront. Loads. Some berry, some red fruits—black cherries, and plum—but hard to differentiate. Just gobs of fruit.

            And, the palate followed this exactly. A fruit bomb. All dark fruits, all starting at the attack and continuing through the mid-palate where acids start kicking in. Nothing too much, just enough to keep the fruit in check. Then fine tannins pick up and follow the fruit through to the finish. And, a pleasing finish it is, full of fruit, and with just enough structure to keep it balanced. Good as an aperitif. With enough structure to handle food. Similar to a Cru Beaujolais.

Nice with leftover braised beef in a wine, clove, and allspice sauce. Better with fruit and soft cheeses.

New wines Tasted Fresh for Your Perusal

Label from bottle of American Summer Limited Edition Chandon California Brut Sparkling NV
American Summer Limited Edition Chandon California Brut Sparkling NV

Pale amber in color, with a long-lasting bead, firm head. A pleasant, if light nose. Some white fruit and a little toast. Firm acidity, pleasant prickle. Long finish with pear and a touch of hard cheese late (think Parmesean). Solid nonvintage sparkler: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. By a French maker in Californian. The acidity in this means it will cut through cream-based or other rich dishes. I liked it with a bit of eating Parmesean. Other salty cheeses would like this wine to dance with. Shellfish. Yep. From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.

Label from bottle of Temp•Ri•Anza Spanish Tempranillo 2015
Temp•Ri•Anza Spanish Tempranillo 2015

Bing cherry in color with browning on the meniscus—slow, fat legs all around the glass. A bit hot at the start, with earthy notes, stewed red fruit and then a float of vanilla and cream at the very end. Reserved attack that quickly kicks in with fine tannins, zippy acidity and wood notes mixed w/dark berry fruit. Long zippy finish. Tongue gripping tannins—a touch of vanilla very late—like a berry tart: 3.5 of 5 🍷 🇪🇸. For pairing, think grilled meat, and pasta with red sauce. Leafy greens with garlic and bits of sausage. From the Tasting Room wine club.

Label from bottle of Ca Roule? Beaujolais Villages 2017
Ca Roule? Beaujolais Villages 2017

Pleasant Village level quaff: Medium Bing cherry color, with slow legs, evenly spaced around the glass. A touch hot in the nose, which is surprising for a Beaujolais, showing stewed red fruit, and some violets in the background. Attac has zippy acidity, which opens up into pleasing cherry and prunes notes. Medium body, with a long fruity finish with acidity and very fine tannins: 3.5 of 5 🍷 🇫🇷. This is an easy-going, versatile wine. Goes well with charcuterie, cheeses with soft rinds, and a variety of meats, especially pork, fowl and poultry. There is a joke that Beajoilais is the only white wine that happens to be red. Meaning the tannins can take chilling, and be served cool, with fish, such as tuna tartare. From the Tasting Room wine club.

Label from bottle of Libellule Pays D'Oc Gewürztraminer 2016
Libellule Pays D’Oc Gewürztraminer 2016

A slightly out of balance, atypical Gewürtztraminer. Shows medium goldenrod, with many fat long legs, and has a bright, tropical fruit nose, with a touch of cream and perhaps some floral notes. A dry attack, midpalate is zippy with some juicy fruits—peach—modestly dry finish, ending with a splash of bitterness: 2.5 of 5 🍷🇫🇷. This wants food and can cut through fat well, as with goose or Fois Gras. For vegetables, think winter squash. The acids will balance out the sweetness. From the Tasting Room wine club.

Label from bottle of Menage a Trois Silk Soft Red Blend California 2016
Menage a Trois Silk Soft Red Blend California 2016

Big, silky red—deep garnet with clear meniscus; long, slow legs all the way around the glass. Rich slightly woody nose, with Bing Cherry notes, some heat and a touch of spice. The attack comes on all red fruit and berries, immediately offset with firm acidity and then drying tannins. A sour-fruit takes over mid-palate and keeps on through the tart finish—the fruit manages to peek through as it leaves a playful impression: 4 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. The acidity and soft tannins will let this stand up to red meat, and that it’s soft suggests BBQ, especially those with a sauce that leans sweeter. Vinegar based ones could scratch this wine up. Burgers and portabella mushroom wave hello to this bottle. From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.

Label from bottle of Underwood Oregon Pinot Noir 2016
Label from bottle of Underwood Oregon Pinot Noir 2016

Intriguing, meaty, warm spiced wine. Medium garnet with brown/brick meniscus. A warm nose, with a bit of roast meat and molasses/caramel. (I wanted to take a bite out of it.) Mellow attack—medium body, with sour cherry and mincemeat, balanced by acidity and fine tannins. A meaty, warm spice finish: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. This is a more Burgundian style Pinot Noir, so think pork roasts, especially with roots vegetables. Squab, roast chicken with mushrooms. Most any mushroom dish. Well balanced, it’s got the backbone to cut through rich dishes. This is a house favorite. From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.

Label from bottle of The Pinot Project California Pinot Noir 2016
Label from bottle of The Pinot Project California Pinot Noir 2016

Big, silky red—deep garnet with clear meniscus; long, slow legs all the way around the glass. Rich slightly woody nose, with Bing Cherry notes, some heat and a touch of spice. The attack comes on all red fruit and berries, immediately offset with firm acidity and then drying tannins. A sour-fruit takes over mid-palate and keeps on through the tart finish—the fruit manages to peek through as it leaves a playful impression: 4 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. Similar to the Underwood above, but with more back end. This wants stews, and other rich dishes, like Chicken and shallots, or Potatoes Dauphinoise. From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.

Label from Bottle of Chateau Haut-Boilon Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux 2015
Label from Bottle of Chateau Haut-Boilon Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux 2015

A well-structured wine that leans bitter at the end. Garnet with distinct browning at the meniscus, a few, long, slow legs, and moderate viscosity. Reserved nose, with a bit of stewed fruit behind hot notes. Firm acidity and tannins from the attack on through the long finish (tongue gripping). Some dark fruit mid-palette and into the finish. A touch bitter at the very end. Not for everyone, but better with food: 3 of 5 🍷🇫🇷. This right-bank Bordeaux leans toward lean red meats, simply grilled or sauced. Shephard’s pie. French Lentils and haricot vert.

Label from bottle of Merf Columbia Valley Chardonnay '15
label from bottle of Merf Columbia Valley Chardonnay ’15

Slick New world Chard from Washington State. Pale daffodil in the glass with many long legs around the class. Moderate viscosity. Toasty, a touch of warm spice and dollop of tropical fruit. All on YUM: allspice and vanilla which last all the way into the finish. Toasty, caramel notes, like flan, nice balancing acidity, a long finish. Very, very Yummy: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸. This Washington state Chardonnay comes from the Napa mold and wants the same food to cozy up to. Think white meat, especially with creamy sauces, or hearty fish and shellfish. Rich vegetable or pasta dishes, whatever it is, needs enough flavor to not fade away against this big wine. From McGovern’s Wine and Spirits in Bay Ridge Brooklyn.

Label from bottle of Pique-Nique Pays d'Oc Chardonnnay
Pique-Nique Pays d’Oc Chardonnay 2016

A well-balanced Chardonnay with a long finish. Mellow goldenrod, with many, slow forming legs around the glass—fairly viscous. Vanilla custard, with nutmeg/allspice notes, similar to eggnog, and a touch of brightness at the end. Zippy from the attack all through the very long finish, and even quite tart then—still round, with some cream custard notes. Not a lot of fruit, but loads of acidity balancing how it coats the mouth. The finish doesn’t quit: 3.5 of 5 🍷 🇫🇷.
More of an Old World style Chardonnay, it’s about mouthfeel and acids, which it has aplenty. Chicken is a gimme. So is fatty fish and leftover Pork Roast, served cold with Mustard. This can cut through cream in vegetable and pasta dishes. The acids give it a lot of flexibility foodwise. From the Tasting Room wine club.

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