Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Chateau Haut-Brion 1978: A Confluence of Graces

Back in 2000, when I was compiling a prolific portfolio of online wine reviews, I received an email from a fellow wine writer on the consumer-oriented web site: "With your permission, I'd like to send you a wine to review." It took me two full nanoseconds to respond: "Permission granted!" Knowing a bit about the ultra-refined tastes of this elegant man -- an attorney in Manila with seemingly no budget when it came to food, wine and cigars -- I sensed it would be one very special selection. However, there was no way on earth I was prepared for the 1978 Chateau Haut-Brion that flew in from New York a few weeks later.

In a pitiful effort to feel worthy of such a gift, and to silence that part of my mind that kept taunting me with a "pearls before swine, pearls before swine" chant, I set out to educate my little piggy self. My generous benefactor had penned his own review of the 1988 vintage so I started my education there: "Chateau Haut-Brion, a Graves, is the only 1855 classified first growth not from the Medoc district. The oldest great chateau of Bordeaux, it is the last family-owned domaine and traces its beginnings to the early 16th century. Known for its consistently fine structure, harmony and smoothness, it is surprisingly and, thankfully, reasonably priced (and I use that term loosely) compared to the other first growths."

The Wine Spectator chimed in: "The estate, the smallest of the first-growths, has about 106 acres of vines (45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc) from which it produces an average of 12,000 cases of its red grand vin per year."

And then I decided that Rumi was the quintessential go-to guy on all things wine: "God has given us a dark wine that, drinking it, we leave the two worlds."

I probably don't have to tell you that this was the oldest wine that has ever passed my lips, and the most expensive. (I can't cite the exact amount paid, for a lady never discusses the price of a gift, but I'm gonna ballpark it at $200, give or take $50.) I treated the bottle with awe and reverence, and a little fear, saving it for just the right occasion. Months passed. Holidays and birthdays came and went. The wine waited down in the garage in poised and patient nobility. I researched it further. I solicited suggestions from dozens of people regarding what I should pair with this wine. I received dozens of differing opinions. No two wine collectors agreed on the perfect food worthy of this classic. One mandate resonated: "Drink it in the company of someone very special and let the food take care of itself."

As serendipity would have it, a beloved, longtime friend and spiritual teacher came to town for a visit. We'll call him "Dr. Joy." I intuitively knew that this was the moment I'd been waiting for. We dined out at the same small Pagosa restaurant both nights, and the 1978 Haut-Brion accompanied us on the second. We asked our delightful food server, Natalie, to come in early the next evening so she could taste the wine with us. The chef was uncharacteristically not on property that night, but "more for us" was my response to that.

I asked to open the wine myself, (yes, yes... control issues), so I could assess the cork's condition. I was quite surprised to find it very pliable and not brittle in the least with relatively no sediment of any kind appearing until the very last sip in the final glass.

Dr. Joy and I observed that the wine was dense yet not at all cloudy; a deeply-saturated purple with just a hint of brick red around the edges. The nose presented a wonderful melange of light blackberries, raspberries and cherries. The fruit smelled aged to me, but not stewed or overly-ripe; somehow well-preserved yet also retaining moderate freshness. The alcohol was almost imperceptible, and there were vegetative nuances I couldn't specify.

The thrill of tasting wine with a mystic is that they can read wine like they read people and events. Dr. Joy immediately described his first sip as "antique, old and fine." Soon he was invoking the name of "Memoria," the goddess of memory, as he was transported back into "other times and eras." The aged wood aromas seemed to open him up to a range of collective elemental and earthy forces. He decreed it an "ancient wisdom wine." I nodded an "uh huh" and scribed on.

I found the taste of the wine lacking the promise held in the nose. The fruit that remained was very light, and this led me to perceive the more earthy/soil/herbal elements as the dominant flavors. I picked up a lot of eucalyptus and cedar, Natalie noticed the herbal components the most, and the bartender summed up his taste experience with "tobacco." We all concurred that "it doesn't taste like it smells," and for me, that was a disappointment.

We were unanimous as well about the in-mouth experiences, finding the first sip the most lively followed by a subtle sweetness mid-palate. The wine had a soft but earthy, rather medium-bodied character and Natalie and I found the finish very short and drying. Dr. Joy was emphatic that it brought to his mind a lover who leaves suddenly -- in fact -- "abandons" was the precise word I was to use to summarize his perceived betrayal by the finish. The finish abandons! He found that suddenly his tongue was not just furry but numbing quickly. His desire to continue sipping was strong, however, so as to enjoy the delightful front-of-the-mouth fruits and acids. Ever the courageous warrior, he managed to press through the painful abandonment issues evoked by the short finish and mouth-numbing sensations. He so enjoyed the Haut-Brion that I gave him my glass and switched to the '99 Hannah Sauvignon Blanc from Napa.

"Any wine will get you high. Judge like a king and choose the purest, the ones unadulterated with fear, or some urgency about 'what's needed.' Drink the wine that moves you as a camel moves as it's been untied, and is just ambling about." - Rumi

This is where the evening started to get a bit hazy and all protocol and propriety were forsaken for spontaneity and laughter. I got down with my just-untied-bad-camel-self and ambled head-first into the very refreshing and palate-resuscitating sauvignon blanc. Dr. Joy tasted my young Napa white wine, pronounced it "mindless" in contrast to his "contemplative" antique French red, and again I thought: "Good. More for me."

As for food pairing issues, what we ordered had less to do with the wine than with not duplicating what we'd had the night before. I did notice that the Haut-Brion really perked up in the licorice/anise/spice department when I tried it with the calamari marinara appetizer. Dr. Joy enjoyed duck with his Haut-Brion, and I had a New York strip with my mindless sauvignon blanc. It was all good, but by then I was so overstimulated by the company, conversation, laughter, and just being out of the house for the second night in a row, the meal was an afterthought (thoroughly enjoyed at home a few hours later, like the prior evening's, alone in the quiet darkness, straight from the to-go container.)

I am not one to offer advice on the aging of first growth Bordeaux, but I will go out on a limb and suggest that if you are cellaring the 1978 Haut-Brion, now would be the time to drink up. For fruit freaks like me, it was waning back in 2000. For contemplative mystics, it might still invoke the ancient and ageless wisdoms.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

America's first perfect - Groth '85 reserve cabernet

Hard to imagine, I know, but in the Fall of 1988 I left a hot and miserable existence in Fresno, CA, for a hot and idyllic existence in the Napa Valley. Heck - I had close family there. It's not like the area offered anything else of interest to me.

I landed a waitressing job at a French restaurant in Yountville (no, not the French Laundry, sadly) on my 31st birthday and thus began my accelerated introduction to the local wineries, winemakers, chefs, caterers, vineyard managers and other demi-gods of the valley. Soon I was waitressing at Auberge du Soleil, working for several of the Valley's busiest caterers, and eventually created my own little freelance food and wine service. I got paid a decent hourly wage for pouring wine and serving incredible food for a plethora of winery and private parties. Heaven, despite the brutal heat.

Fortune (and my manicurist) introduced me to Judy Groth, co-owner with husband Dennis of the Groth Vineyards and Winery in Oakville, CA. Mrs. Groth was a wonderful cook and frequently found herself entertaining all manner of industry folk in the opulent winery dining room serviced by her perfect, self-designed catering kitchen. I was the hired help, upon occasion.

The Groth's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was the Director of Marketing, and we become fast friends. All of this access allowed me to purchase two bottles of the Groth 1985 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was released on February 1, 1989, and Robert Parker decreed it to be: "America's First Perfect", awarding it a perfect score of 100 points. I still have the winery's promotional t-shirt that says as much. Needless to say, for him to crown a California Cabernet with a perfect 100 was marketing magic. The Wine Spectator chimed in with a 97, and the Groths had a winemaking coup on their hands.

Groth Vineyards & Winery was established in 1982. More than 100 tons of grapes from the family vineyards were crushed into the first vintage that year. Production increased quickly to 30,000 cases by 1984. In 1985 the winery needed full-time attention from Dennis and Judy and they moved their family to the Oakville property. The first phase of construction had been completed on the winery and by 1989 the winery was done. Over the next decade, Groth Vineyards & Winery firmly established its reputation as an outstanding producer of Napa Valley wines. Production increased to approximately 40,000 cases annually and Groth began to use all of the grapes from the estate vineyards.

Back in 1985, Nils Venge was the winemaker extraordinnaire in residence. He founded his own Oakville winery, Saddleback Cellars, in 1982 and parted ways with Groth in 1993 to bask in his own full-time glory at Saddleback. The 1985 growing season brought a warm spring and an earlier than normal bud break. The rest of the summer was long and cool. The fluctuating weather slowed down the usually hectic picking and crushing frenzy, allowing the winery to concentrate on each of the varietals a bit longer during the hand-harvest and crush process.

All of the grapes for the 1985 reserve came from one section of the Oakville vineyards that border the winery. The blend was 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot. It spent 24 months aging in new French oak and another year aging in the bottle. The alcohol level was 13.4% upon release.

I paid $25 each for my two bottles. I don't recall when or where I drank the first bottle, but it could have been one night at Piatti's in Sonoma with Elizabeth Groth. I know we opened someone's 85 Reserve Cab over dinner; hers, mine, ours - who can recall so many years later?

I do recall the wine. It was by far one of the most rich and complex reds I had ever tasted. The fruit was lush and silky, brimming with deep cherry and berry flavors and nuances of coffee, chocolate, and plum. The Merlot grapes contributed the perfect portion of earth, pepper and tannins and the finish was smooth, long and lingering. The wine was all the rage and a prized possession to be treasured.

I remember my absolute commitment to not touching my second bottle for a long while, even when it was my last bottle of wine, and even when I was down to my last dollar. By then, folks were paying between $300 and $400 per bottle. Near riots ensued in the winery parking lot as wine geeks plotted their acquisition strategies. It was my first inside look at the lunacy often inspired by 750ml of fermented grape juice. A cult wine pioneer to be sure.

I saved my second bottle, schlepped it to Monterey with me in 1991, and somewhere around 1992 or 1993, I finally broke down. I hauled it out of the garage and opened it, all alone, in my funky Monterey Bay apartment. It was good, it was "auspicious", but it was a bottle of wine, for God's sake. I reflected upon just how much numinosity and sacredness I had projected upon this one bottle; so many memories and expectations spanning so much time. The experience again reminded me that perception and limited availability of anything is 95% of the magnetism.

I still think fondly about the wine and those years; the very inspiring and educational times with the Groth family at their beautiful winery and vineyards. They also produce great sauvignon blancs, in case you ever run across one, and continue to operate their winery as a closely-held family business. Daughter Elizabeth relocated to Atlanta in 1993 and appears to run a very successful wine and food retail operation, Embry Villiage Wine and Spirits.

Speaking of longstanding Napa Valley cabernet classics and Boss' Day last Monday, my boss lady presented me with a congratulatory bottle of Stags' Leap 2002 cabernet sauvignon not too long ago. Despite my attempts to cellar it until winter, there inevitably came that one night when it was the only bottle around and I was down to my last dollar, and well, you know the rest.

I was surprised by the wine's light structure but enjoyed the trip down Napa Cab Memory Lane. The soft red berries and cherries were nicely supported by a hint of spice, chocolate and dark coffee. 92% cabernet sauvignon, 6% cabernet franc, 2% merlot, and 14.1% alcohol. You gotta know that the $48 price tag makes it one of the most expensive wines I've enjoyed all year. And enjoy it I did!

Friday, September 22, 2006

A semi-sweet farewell to summer

Have you caved in to your first fire of the season yet? I did -- a week ago Sunday. I woke to find freezing temperatures on the covered deck. I hopped onto to learn that Monday morning would bring 27 whopping degrees our way. With a garage full of chopped wood (my well-deserved and much-appreciated compensation for the ten-day critter sitting stint), I thought "whattheheck?" Of course, by 4:00pm I was opening windows and sliding glass doors, but that's par for my course. That cats are again snoozing on my legs and have stopped waking me at 5:00am, sleeping in till 6:30, God bless them all. Winter approaches. Ugh.

This is my eleventh winter here and it wasn't until the ninth, 2004, that my inner California girl had finally gotten her belly full of the angelic fluffy white stuff. That winter pushed me over the sanity ledge that I teeter upon so precariously. It was like living in freakin' Fresno, for all the gloom and unrelenting gray gunk of doom. We were "blessed" with the most snow since 1996, my first winter here. At least it felt that way. I vowed that I would not still be here last winter, yet here I sat. But it was mercifully dry and sunny, for the most part, and the shortest winter I can recall. And now the time of dread is upon me again, and here I still sit. I'm lazy and listless, fearful and anxious a lot lately; attributes which pair poorly with snow and ice. I tire of shoveling, I resent paying for plowing, and I tremble and shake when I have to drive. I don't ski. Or board. Or shoe.

The thing that will probably cheer and fortify me more than anything else this winter is having a semi-legitimate excuse to drink a lot of new red wines. I'm always making lemonade -- or grapeade. Like a prisoner requesting a last meal, I've been on a bit of a white wine binge recently. I know that I'll lose my taste for their refreshing ways -- their slightly sweet flavors and zippy acids -- once it gets cold and stays cold. Here are four very good choices that I've tried in recent weeks:

Kendall-Jackson Riesling 2005 ($11) The very quiet nose belies the super-tart apricot flavors that burst upon the palate. Lemon rind, orange peel and amazing acids keep the stone fruit sweetness from getting sickly. A bit steely/minerally on the aftertaste. The wine has a fantastic structure and by that I mean it stands up in the mouth. Some wines race through; some limp. The sensation is of the wine rushing up against the roof of the mouth and filling the whole cavity with its flavors. Buoyant and alive! With all that character and structure this would be a great food pairing wine and a perfect (warm autumn?) afternoon aperitif. Great value.

Fetzer Gewürztraminer 2005 ($10.50) You're always told to look for notes of honeysuckle, jasmine and rose petals in this grape, but I am not one to find flowers growing in my wine. However, "floral" was the first word that popped into my mind as I sniffed my glass and sipped. And then came honey. Honeysuckle! Very lightly spiced and not so sweet as to border on syrup. Beautifully balanced. On day two it was all white peach and fresh apricot with a tangerine kicker. Serve this one in a wineglass that lives in the freezer when empty. Like the K-J Riesling, this is a
no-brainer choice to keep in stock for all the winter holidays and festivities. Guzzle with turkey and ham.

Alpha Domus Unoaked Chardonnay 2005 ($12) Because I was on a New Zealand kick and felt as if I'd picked on chardonnay in print enough for one summer, I decided to take a chance on this unoaked offering from the Hawkes Bay region. I honestly couldn't remember the last chardonnay I'd tasted. A quietly intriguing, musty, dusty nose is there, yet it was oddly comforting. There was something ancestral and nostalgic about the aromas: the back of grandma's closet? The corner of grandpa's woodshed? The flavors were hard to tease out although I did say aloud upon the second sip: "mmmmmm -- that's lovely" so I obviously found something to like. The fruit flavors are soft tropicals, especially pineapple. There is a hint of light lemon with pleasing front-of-the mouth acid and a mineral aftertaste which comes across as salty. Don't overchill this one as you'll kill off the subtleties.

Spinyback Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($10) This New Zealand offering was recommended by a store owner as a personal favorite. I always pay attention to recommendations from people who work in the industry but I did issue my paranoid disclaimer to him that I had to be careful about New Zealand sauvignon blancs because all that greenery in the glass disturbs me. As further inducement he mentioned that a tiny portion of my purchase would benefit the native lizard. I told him I suffered from lifelong reptile phobia and put the bottle with the off-putting iguana-like creature back on the rack. But the shelf talker promised me it would be balanced and not too grassy or slimey and I was suddenly feeling unbearably neurotic and rigid, so I bought it. And in the end I was glad.

This is a very interesting wine for under $10 and even though it's not a style that I normally prefer, I can certainly appreciate it for what it is. But you gotta know the nose terrified me: total jalapeno, green bell pepper and hay. Uh oh. The dominant flavors were all grassy and pink grapefruit with a vibrant lemon finish. Uh oh again. But wait -- the great body, lovely texture, and very firm acid backbone started to seduce me. The wine was getting under my scaly skin. It grew on me with each glass and was still very interesting the next day with the grapefruit flavors dominating. This is a beautiful wine and is highly recommended for people who look for the citrus, herb and vegetative components in a sauvignon blanc. I ended up enjoying it so much that I plan to grab a few more bottles in hopes that we have an extraordinarily dry and sunny winter ahead of us.

But as I finish this column today, the house is so cold and damp I am readying my second fire of the season. Blanco Basin residents woke to an inch of snow on the ground, and all the cats elected to stay in the house, under covers or quilts, when I left for work this morning. Winter has preceeded autumn this year. There's no denying it. I need to accept it. I also need to run out now and grab some mood elevating, body temperature raising, red wine.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

You say fumé, I say sauvignon

Sauvignon blanc enjoys wide appeal and wide distribution for good reason. It is one of, if not the most, affordable and food-friendly white wine grapes around today. When referring to fumé or sauvignon blanc, the grapes are one and the same. We have that visionary California winemaking icon, Robert Mondavi, to thank for the liberal usage of the term fumé blanc in the United States as a synonym for sauvignon blanc. In France, historic home to this aromatic and versatile white grape, the Loire Valley produces the varietal in the appellation of Pouilly, the best called Pouilly-Fumé. The wine is also called blanc fumé -- fumé as in smoky -- a flinty, mineral characteristic often found in the wines of the region. Some say the fumé refers to the toasted oak flavors from the barrel aging process, and still others claim the fumé is the fog from a river below the Loire. No matter. In 1968, Mondavi, always the clever marketer, renamed his oak-aged, dry sauvignon blanc "fumé blanc", confusing the whole crowd, and many wineries have followed suit in the succeeding years.

Though the grapes are identical it is worth knowing that the wine itself may not be. While a fumé blanc (and Pouilly-Fumé) will always be made from 100% sauvignon blanc grapes, labels bearing the name of sauvignon blanc are allowed to blend in up to 25% of another grape, usually semillon, and still call themselves a sauvignon blanc.

While it can be found in northeast Italy, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and numerous other regions and states in America, California vintners have made great strides with this grape over recent years. While part of the viticultural landscape since the 1800s, it was only as recently as the 1970s that California winemakers began to focus on making a better bottle of sauvignon blanc. Tragically, they lost their minds for a while and started to treat the grape as if it were chardonnay, trying to tame it, subjecting it to all manner of humiliating and softening malolactic fermentation processes, punishing it by making it sit in dark oak barrels all alone to think about what it had done, being so sassy, brash and petulant. The bracing acids and irresistible vibrancy of this irrepressible grape were muted for a time but those dark days are (for the most part) over. More California producers now see the 100% stainless steel light, praise Bacchus. In previous columns I have promised that you can look for reliable and consistent values from California producers Sterling, Kenwood and Chateau St. Jean, buying with confidence. All turn out the lightly floral, fruit-driven, heavy acid zap SBs that I enjoy the most.

New Zealand has become all the rage in recent years showering the world with super-crisp, tart, high acid sauvignon blancs with a very distinctive style and flavor. In my mouth they are usually very grassy, herbaceous and green citrus fruit-laden. Those in the know find them full of gooseberries, or even "cat's pee on a gooseberry bush." Never having tasted a gooseberry in my life, but having extensive experience with cat pee, I get the idea. The 2004 Fauna Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region in New Zealand ($13) is a perfect representative of this style: thick grass on the nose but a lemon bomb in the mouth. Yellow grapefruit and lime dominate the finish. I found that a very long chilling session in the freezer worked well to counteract the hot perception I get from so much herb, hay and the acidic bite of bitter citrus fruits like grapefruit. The moderate alcohol level of 12.5% is not to blame for the heat in this case; the flavor profile gives the sensation. Even though the 2005 is in release, the 2004 is still supported by a firm acid backbone. Racy and refreshing with far more intricacy than I expected, especially as it opens up in the glass.

Some of us believe that this grape turns out the most food friendly white wine in the universe. (Others of us say riesling. I say bah!) Because it is a dry white wine with very little residual sugar, sauvignon blanc is a highly versatile food wine. It can be enjoyed with a vast range of cuisine and is one of the very best aperitif wines around. While I am all about drinking the wine you love with the food you want to eat, even if that means sauvignon blanc with your pot roast or syrah with your eggs, there is much to praise in the food flexibility of a sauvignon blanc that is left alone in the winemaking process, allowing the bright fruit acids to shine.

Because acidity in both wine and food tend to neutralize each other, a fresh, light-to-medium-bodied sauvignon blanc will taste better and less acidic when paired with highly acid foods like tomatoes, citrus, green vegetables and a vinaigrette-dressed salad. This makes it a great all around choice for many vegetarian dishes, including quiche and risotto. It is one of the few wines that has the character to take on artichokes and asparagus, notoriously hard to match. The grape is perceived as a bit sweeter when in the company of these challengers.

Just as a slice of lemon gives your fish dish the zip it needs, sauvignon blanc is the perfect partner to many seafood dishes. I love a slightly herbaceous SB with pesto pasta dishes and salads, but don't be afraid to try it with heavy cream and cheese sauce recipes like the Alfredos and Carbonaras. The biting acid structure slices right through the heaviness. Ditto with Mexican food. It's a match made in heaven for Thai and Chinese dishes that emphasize fish, pork, poultry and vegetables in curries, coconut milk sauces, garlic, ginger, soy, peanut and lemon-grass.

Some claim that the best cheese to pair with a good sauvignon blanc is goat's milk, but I love it with smoked cheese and gorgonzola. There is not much that a vibrant and tingling sauvignon blanc will not enhance, but as in all of life, perception is everything, and only yours counts.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pennies for My Palate (Wine Spectator 5/15/01)

I'm not a wine expert -- I just play one on a pay-per-click, start-up Web site.
A little knowledge is not only dangerous -- it's intoxicating. In wine evaluating, as in life, perception is queen. I repeat over and over in my reviews that my findings are all my own. I am beyond candid about my personal antipathy for overoaked and malolactically fermented California white wines, and I admit with a modicum of shame that I know next to nothing about wines from countries other than the United States. I taste most wines alone (in terms of both company and food) and when I do reach for evaluation sustenance, it's most often of the rice cake and string cheese variety.
Even though I explain that my online handle, a four-letter woman's name, actually belongs to my hyperkinetic puppy, and that her palate is useless to me for wine evaluating purposes due to her proclivity for cat scat, people are inclined to give me far too much power and praise.
Being on the front lines with a visible e-mail address is the quintessential double-edged blade on a waiter's corkscrew. A sampling of the pleas for help I have received in the penning and posting of some 150-plus wine reviews goes something like this:
"I'm about to review a Concord wine from Pennsylvania. What components should I be looking for?"
"My husband swears that the Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages, any vintage, is the best wine on earth. Will you review it for him?"
"I opened a Chardonnay to sauté my chicken breasts in and threw away the cork. What can I use instead? How long will it keep? PS. My wife likes that Arbor Mist wine. Can you recommend a Chardonnay she might enjoy?"
"I am about to post a review with four hors d'oeuvres recipes. What wines would you pair them with?"
"I have a bottle of 1984 California Chardonnay in the garage. Is it ready?"
"I'm dining out next month in San Francisco. Here's the link to the wine list. What should my wife and I drink with our seafood?"
"I don't drink wine. I drink Dr. Pepper. I need a fabulous wine with which to woo a fabulous woman. You know her taste in wine. What shall I show up on her doorstep with?"
"When you say a Sauvignon Blanc tastes and smells like grass, do you mean marijuana grass or cow grass? I've never eaten grass. What does this mean?"
And then there is the occasional ruffled-feather e-mail, usually from an overly protective wine rep: "Since you seem to like so few of the Pinot Noirs you review, I suggest that you find a new varietal to drink or start spending more on your bottles."
But just as frequently come notes from people who have actually heeded my advice and lived to share the outcome.
I love to hear that I helped to make a special dinner a bit more memorable -- that a few wines I recommended were served at a tasting or enjoyed at a dinner party. I enjoy reading that when the wine list fell into the lap of an unsuspecting woman attending a business luncheon, she recognized a selection that I had reviewed favorably and wowed her companions with her good taste.
The way I rationalize it, if in the personal pursuit of my own wining and writing passions I can help to demystify wine and take the intimidation factor down just one tiny notch, my efforts are validated and my conspicuous consumption redeemed. Above all, if I had to reduce my most profound, sage advice on wine drinking to one sentence, it would be: "Your palate is never wrong."
I often wonder if the glut of consumer Web sites filled with reviews and articles written by "lay folk" will put more wine on American tables. I think it will. Obtaining wine education and buying advice (and the equally important, not-buying advice) from a peer-group-populated cyber-community can bolster the retail buying -- and restaurant ordering -- courage of the wine-curious collective. It will encourage the many people lurking in the self-conscious shadows to walk with us in confidence and strength toward the glowing and welcoming wine-loving light. I'm glad to be of service.

The Zen of dental mindfulness

Drinking wine is bad for my teeth. Well, maybe not my real teeth, but certainly for my ultra-pricey porcealin veneers. Despite an encouraging study that led researchers to conclude that components found in red wine can help in the prevention and treatment of gum disease, my mouth has funky wine karma.

Shortly after moving here in 1996 when I labored under the delusion that I had money to burn, I decided that my horribly embarrassing, noticeably eroding teeth enamel was no longer acceptable. I put my money where my mouth was and invested in ten upper porcelain veneers. I drove to Santa Fe for all the work and had I one inkling of the number of hours I'd log in the dental chair and the sheer stress of the stress of it all, not to mention the pain, more stress, and the remainder of the pain, I never would've done it. But I done it. And while my smile does rock, I have itsy bitsy veneer flipping issues when I drink wine and try to eat low carb. (Again with the low carb food issues.) The wine makes me more reckless, I suppose, weakening the hyper-vigilant mindfulness that I bring to my bite when sober. I don't operate my car while drinking; I should probably stop operating my mouth.

Back in 2000 I lost a side veneer to -- I kid you not -- a very stale Y2K stockpile granola bar (the second one I seemed compelled to enjoy that evening.) Two years ago I flipped off a front tooth veneer while biting into an overcooked Atkins frozen low carb pizza (again with the Atkins anger issues). Last week the enemy was a rice cake smothered with chunky peanut butter. The very same upper front veneer bolted from my mouth and stood proudly, a little white soldier, upright, at attention, in the rice cake. I came to as I was about to throw the half-eaten offender in the trash, extracted the veneer, mercifully still intact, washed it, and wrapped it up for safe keeping until I could get to the dentist for the reattachment. Talk about your buzz kills. Surely God's clever way of telling me to lay off low carb foods, right?

Speaking of buzz kills, I know I'm always harping on the importance of vintage and year-to-year variations in some of my beloved wines but there is good reason for this. It matters! Wines that I adore one year can taste so different in the next that they are hardly recognizable. It's crucial when you read wine reviews that sound appealing that you seek out the precise vintage the reviewer has critiqued. More often than not the shelf talkers in liquor stores boasting the rave recommendations of notables like The Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator pertain to a vintage no longer in the rack. A few months back I found the newly-released, handy purse-size (1.5 liter) 2005 Beringer White Merlot in a store and quite liked it. I ran into another store and noting the bottle in the front of the cooler was a 2004, I asked the store's employee: "If you had the 2005 in stock, where would it be?" Her response was neither educated nor caring and implied that the new release was not yet in the store. I walked over to the floor display rack and found the 2005. Only my dentist and I get paid to care about what I put in my mouth.

After James Robinson bemoaned his inability to find the Laurel Glen Reds in a recent column, I went right out and found it for him. I was all set to walk into the Sun and leave it for him with a pithy little note attached: "Drinking new world wines and thinking are not mutually exclusive" until I realized the bottle I found for him was the 2004. My positive rantings about this wine in a previous column involved the 2003. While I was tempted to bet my life on the 2004 as I've never met a Laurel Glen Reds that I didn't love, it was simply incumbent upon me to taste it. To risk my already shaky, non-thinking, new world wine drinking reputation required that I be confident I could stand by my wine. And man was I glad I sampled it first. I finally met a Reds I did not love. It was bitter. Just bitter. In service to James, I will try it again once the autumn leaves turn just to be sure that I did not get a bad bottle but there is no reason to seek it out now, in my opinion.

Two other recent disappointments include the Kenwood 2005 Sauvignon Blanc and the Montevina 2005 Pinot Grigio. Here again, I can't recall a Kenwood SB I've not enjoyed until two weeks ago when I tried the 2005 ($12). A very grassy and herbaceous nose paved the way for a tart green apple rush with bracing front-of-the-mouth acid. Refreshing lime peel and lemon rind flavors combined with a tropical fruit aftertaste and intense minerality. It was a very complex and mutli-layered bottling with a lot going on, exploding upon the palate with every sip. There was a distinctive tobacco finish that became undesireable after the second glass, almost too powerful for some reason. I concluded my tasting notes with: "Consult winemaking notes. Did it touch wood?" Sho' 'nuff. I consulted Kenwood's web site: "The lots were fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel to retain the natural fruity flavors of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. A small portion was aged in 2000 Gallon French oak tanks to mellow the wine without adding oak character." I beg to differ.

The 2004 Montevina Pinot Grigio rocked my world a few months back. Eager to see what delights the 2005 held, I found very promising lime and tropical sweet fruits on the nose with pronounced layering of citrus fruit flavors. Candied lime and a full array of exotic fruits like lychee and kiwi were there along with a strong vegetative aftertaste. This wine is very intense and focused. The 2004 is still around and I'd be inclined to snap that one up as it was a far more enjoyable bottle, but for $11 the 2005 will not disappoint.

When money is a consideration (days ending in "y") and I want maximum grape pluck for my wimpy wine buck, I grab my Beringer White Merlot 1.5. But this gets old toward the end of summer and the benevolent gods of cheap wine smiled down on me last week when a liquor store employee pointed me toward the 2005 Citra, saying his wife loved it. I love it! For $9.99 you get a 1.5 liter bottle of Italian Trebbiano juice, the second-most planted grape in the world. The wine is very light in color and style with soft, refreshing acidity and pleasing citrus flavors. No French oak, no vanilla chips, no acid reflux. Just a very quaffable, value-driven white wine. Citra: my new best old world wine friend.

R.I.P. Dr. Atkins -- let's have a glass of wine

(Also titled: Lamentations of a low carb lush)

Am I the only person in Pagosa who can't drink wine and lose weight? My last sip of wine was prior to Memorial Day, if you can believe that, and I don't feel as if I've lost more than five pounds. I tossed the ancient scale in the trash last month when it said as much. (No, I've not lied to you. I made sure that I drank a whole lot of wine and took a whole lot of tasting notes before jumping on that wagon.) Enough! How's a girl supposed to write a wine column if she's not drinking wine? It was a foolish idea all along. I blame Dr. Atkins, rest his soul. The "induction" phase on his low carb diet forbids wine. But induction is only supposed to last two weeks, really. (If one only has a tiny bit of weight to lose, it's meant to last two weeks. If one wants to lose a lot of weight, induction is forever.) Ugh. Eleven weeks has felt like forever on some days, trust me.

I overheard a snippet on the news one night that drove me straight to Google. MSN's Health and Fitness online offered an exciting article: "Weight Watchers Want Wine." Researchers at Colorado State University conducted a 12-week study and concluded that calories from red wine do not contribute to weight gain!

"Over the study period, 14 healthy males drank two glasses of red wine with dinner daily for six weeks and abstained from drinking alcohol for six weeks, or vice versa." Halfway through the study a variety of measurements were taken: "No changes were found in any of the participants whether they drank red wine or abstained." These findings were consistent with those of many other similar studies and the CSU scientists proclaimed: "Based on our study and other studies, it seems no support can be given to recommending that alcohol consumption be reduced in order to maintain or reduce body weight." Take that, Dr. Atkins, may you slumber in eternally slender peace.

And then I came to and remembered that I am not a man and I am not drinking reds. But summer's almost gone, for heaven's sake, and I'm not ready to drink reds again already, even if it were the secret to my slimness. Time to play catch up on my favorite warm weather whites.

Last Friday I was ready to fling myself head first off the low carb purist wagon. It'd been an exhausting week for many reasons, none of which would garner me much sympathy. Friday afternoon I grabbed one bottle on the way home. And then, not even 48 hours into my ten-day-long stint as critter sitter for my neighbors' six animals, I came home to find the two dogs had busted out of their fenced yard and were surely cavorting in the canyon. "If this screws up my buzz tonight I'm gonna be so pissed" was my first thought. I'm selfish that way. But the dogs came back and the fence was being patched so I tried not to dwell on potential future escapes and how horribly inconvenient that could get if it interfered with my column research.

With a favorite guilty TV pleasure from Wednesday night on tape, I settled in with my own five animals, eager to savor the artistic eccentricities and petty squabbling on "Project Runway". It'd been a few years since I'd sampled the Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc from Chile so this was my refreshing choice for the evening. The 2005 opens with a dominant overlay of fresh grass and grapefruit aromas. Vigorous sniffing and swirling coaxes the sweeter fruit notes to reveal themselves. I perceived the first sip as a bit hot and was not surprised to find a 13.5% alcohol level dominating the fruit flavors. Drats! Then I was faced with that perplexing quandry: Do I press on, in the hope that maybe with a bit more chilling and a bit more opening it will improve? Do I stop right now and save myself the calories, the carbs, and the certain headache? Do I accept it for what it is and let my lofty expectations go because I was so looking forward to this and it's the only bottle in the house? Do I screw the top back on and pop open the 2002 Stag's Leap Cabernet I received as a gift that is lounging down in the garage till autumn? Admonishing myself that even though it was only 70 on the deck I must not waste such a special red on warm weather conditions, I committed to the Veramonte.

And I committed to the self-torture: "Maybe it's a food wine? Why don't I have any good food in the house?" "Because your definition of good wine pairing food is high fat, high sugar and high carb. You know you are not to be trusted, that's why. You remember the deal: you are only allowed to drink wine if you eat low carb. Remember? We've been over this before. For years. REMEMBER?" "I can't believe I spent money on a wine I don't love." "You spent $8.59 on it, Laura. Heed the Wine Avenger's advice: 'Shut up and put it in the glass!' "

The wine has a very firm mineral backbone and a bitter citrus kick, neither of which I favor in this varietal. The wine's label promises flavors of fresh peaches but they'd left the building by the time this bottle reached my house. I reviewed my notes on the 2002 which proved my memory correct: "A grassy and herbaceous nose followed up by green apples and soft, lush tropical fruit flavors -- mango, banana and pineapple. Fruit salad in a bottle!" Previous vintages have been far more exotic and mutli-layered than the 2005 and packed with the juicy flavors I prefer. Not sure why, but that's the roll of the dice we accept when dealing with such sensitive and volatile influences like weather patterns and growing seasons. Sauvignon blanc is a cool weather grape and the flavors and aromas you find in the glass have everything to do with where it is grown. (For the sake of this column I will assume that the wine has not been fermented or aged in oak, as that ruins -- I mean, changes -- everything.) More on that in a future column.

I paired the 2005 Veramonte sauvignon blanc with boneless, skinless, Red Bird chicken breasts sauteed in olive oil along with organic baby carrots, shredded cabbage and yellow squash from the wayward, non-repentant dogs' garden. And then I paired it with the inevitable morning after headache. It's hard out here for a low carb lush.