The Cheshire Cat has been portrayed in various Alice in Wonderlands as mad or, well, simply maddening. In certain versions he has been merged with the Caterpillar, who appears to be a rather short-tempered, pot-addled hipster.
No matter, I feel their pain. It’s not that the Cat wasn’t willing to give poor Alice good directions (Should she go left or right?) or that the Caterpillar was misleading her (Which side of the mushroom should she swallow?) but that little Alice was asking questions for which the best answer is always: it depends.
And so it is this time of year when I am asked questions to which any answer is a random guess at best and an intentional lie at worst.
What wine is best, I am asked. What wine goes with this dish, they implore. Well, you see, it all depends.
It depends on price; it depends on preference. I can extoll the glories of off-dry (slightly sweet in wine jargon) German Riesling with turkey dinner, but if you don’t like Riesling, of what use is my enthusiasm? I can insist that Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir is an excellent rosé sparkling wine and great for any holiday meal, but if you think pink wine is not good enough for your guests (you must have some very snobby guests) then how have I helped?
I can tell you that Bernard Diochon makes the most amazing Moulin-a-Vent (that’s a fancy kind of Beaujolais) and that I love it at the Thanksgiving table, but if you can’t find it (and you probably won’t, unless you like surfing the Web for your wines), then my “expertise” is worse than useless. It’s annoying.
Feel like we’re going down the rabbit hole? We wine people are a frustrating lot, full of qualifications and “could-be’s” and “perhaps” and “it all depends” but, you see, it does indeed depend. You, dear reader, seek certainty where there is little or none.
Wine is a food: It is little more than grape juice left alone for a day or two. You know what foods you like and don’t like: It would be absurd for me to insist that periwinkles (little river clams, of a sort) are the perfect snack food for your next party. Wouldn’t you scoff at me if I recommended barnacles (a delicacy in Spain) for your big holiday get-together? Of course you would; you probably haven’t ever tasted them.
But aside from the fact that barnacles (percebes, in Espanol) are simply heavenly, most shoppers preparing for a gathering want something they know and can count on. With wine, if they already know such a wine, they probably aren’t asking me that question. For everyone else, the goal is to find something when the choices are overwhelming and mostly unknown.
By now you recall that Alice got fed up with the Cheshire Cat and walked. Her subsequent decisions may seem hasty and ill-advised in retrospect. “Wait,” he said, and so will I. Don’t go. I have some ideas for you. This “it depends” business rests on these questions:
▪ How much money do you want to spend (a lot or a little)?
▪ What kind of wine do you like (sparkling, red or white)?
▪ What style of wine are you hoping to drink (powerful or mild; dry or sweet; spicy or gentle)?
Each question points you somewhere else, and sometimes you come back to the same place (at this point, Alice starts to storm off).
“Wait,” as the Caterpillar also said. You want answers, don’t you?
OK, here are some:
▪ If you like sparkling wine, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate are affordable American versions. Mionetto, LaMarca and Zardetto are all useful Proseccos with food, but then all sparkling wines go with virtually everything. At least I find that they do.
I like real Champagne (you know, that place in France), and I recommend Billecart Salmon, Nicolas Feuillatte, Pommery and Louis Roederer, depending on how much you can afford to spend.
▪ You want something a bit sweet? German Riesling is actually more often dry than sweet, but I am ravenous for the slightly sweet versions: Donnhoff, Fritz Haag, J.J. Pruem, Leitz, Moenchhof, Selbach-Oster, Weins-Pruem and Zilliken will offer that sweet/tart character these wines exemplify.
▪ Rich but balanced Chardonnay? Patz & Hall, Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay, Morgan and Dutton-Goldfield.
▪ Complex Pinot Noir? I usually go to Burgundy for these, but Anthill, Ayres, Bethel Heights, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin, Fiddlehead, Littorai, McKinlay, Patricia Green, Peay and Red Car are some of the affordable (or at least not crazy priced), American bottlings.
▪ I often choose Syrah as a sort of one size fits all red wine: there are a couple thousand choices, but I will look to Washington State (Dunham, Gramercy, McCrea, Ste. Michelle, Charles Smith and many others).
I haven’t even mentioned Malbec, or Cabernet, or Bordeaux, or Rhone, or Italian, but, of course, it all depends. And for a brief moment, my smile is all she could see. And then that too disappears.
Doug Frost holds the rare dual designation of master sommelier and master of wine. He writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section.