Armed with just a few basic facts, and maybe a rifle, you can walk into any party of wine lovers and impress them with your knowledge. But where do you find those facts? Reference books give you their version of the facts, but when it comes to wine grapes these facts are shamefully incomplete. Sure, they have little illustrations of different grape clusters, but how boring is that? "Did you know that Zinfandel ripens unevenly, sort of like how Scarlet Johansson's left boob is smaller than her right." Who cares? Fortunately, my right hand is smaller than my left. Call me, Scarlet, we go together like Beaucastel and Brett. Anyhow, reading a book about grape varieties that's filled with stupid paintings of clusters is about as interesting as reading every Marvin Shanken "Letter From the Editor" in Wine Spectator. Marvin writes with all the flair of a turkey baster. So in Volume 2 of The HoseMaster's Honest Guide to Grapes I focus on a few of the better known red varieties. Take notes, there will be a short quiz later.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the easiest grape to understand. Think of it like a Frank Gehry designed winery--big and ugly. There seems to be something in Cabernet that mesmerizes humans. It's our desire for size instead of subtlety. So Celine Dion not Blossom Dearie. Five Dollar Footlongs, not dime-a-dozen six inches. Rush Limbaugh instead of truth. And, naturally, when we speak of great Cabernet Sauvignon we speak about elegance because it has none, but we're sure as hell determined to convince everyone it does. Cabernet is to elegance as Johnny Weir is to masculinity. Cabernet Sauvignon is useful in assessing wine lovers as well. If a friend's wine cellar is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, the person who assembled it knows about as much about wine as the average wine blogger. Insert joke here. In general, the best wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon command the highest prices of almost any of the varieties, so it's also a sign of intelligence, or lack thereof.
Interesting Cabernet Sauvignon facts:
Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended into the finest Italian wines in order to make them understandable to stupid American wine buyers. It almost never makes them better.
In Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is best when aged in enormous caves, the bigger and more elaborate the better. You know what Freud said about caves, "They are big, wet and filled with strange life forms, and I love to store my cigar there." Freud preferred big Pinots. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant grape of the Left Bank of Bordeaux. "Left Bank" is from the colloquial expression for what prestige-seeking buyers have done after a shopping spree in Pauillac.
Other names for Cabernet Sauvignon:
HMS Ti-Tannic Death Cab for Laube Athlete's Lafite Cab Salve
Zinfandel is known as America's Grape. This is thought to be praise. But consider that America's Team is the Dallas Cowboys. Losers. America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford--dead. And, of course, the America's Cup--Shawn White's jockstrap. Fragrant with the smell of corporate money. Zinfandel is a bit like Mariah Carey, most people believe it's white. Zinfandel's heritage has been traced though Italy's Primitivo grape to the even lesser-known Mashie Niblick grape of Croatia. More people pretend to like Zinfandel than any other red grape. Once a year thousands of Zinfandel lovers gather at a large tasting called ZAP (for Zinfandel Alcoholics and Perverts) and demonstrate their love for the grape. The idea came from NAMBLA. Zinfandel remains the leader in being the wine most often offered by-the-glass and never ordered, making it the wine of choice for off-duty busboys.
Interesting facts about Zinfandel:
Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills lack color and structure and character, yet still sell prolifically in tasting rooms. Here is where its high alcohol pays dividends.
The origin of the word "Zinfandel" is the word "Zahnfundl," which is Croatian for "Pass me the Syrah."
A TTB regulation forbids a Zinfandel with any character or flavor to be bottled with a proprietary name that features a pun with the word "Zin." These labels are designed to help dump the ocean of bad, unbalanced Zinfandel on the Special Needs Wine Buyers who won't know the difference anyway.
Other names for Zinfandel:
Techron Lodiarrhea Back Inventory Jamantha Sans Dosage
Merlot is the term for declassified Cabernet Sauvignon. It was made popular by the 2004 hit movie "Sideways," which starred Paul Giamatti as a pompous, wine-loving, balding loser--a transparent homage to the HoseMaster. Merlot is one of the five red varieties allowed in Bordeaux, making it the Gummo Marx of grapes. Merlot was once thought to be a separate variety, but genetic testing has proved it to be Cabernet Sauvignon with a limp. In Chile, Carmenere was mistaken for Merlot because it isn't any good either. Merlot was briefly the darling of Americans until it was discovered that it was shallow and found in all the wrong places, like Tiger Woods.
Interesting facts about Merlot:
The greatest wines of Pomerol are predominantly Merlot, which is the major reason the French don't list the grape varieties on wine labels.
Merlot is often associated with a weedy character and is an effective garden substitute for Round-Up.
Merlot is added to fine wines in order to lower the price. It acts as filler and is often referred to in the trade as grape Spam.
Other names for Merlot:
Chile Dog Mister Softie Cab Lite Floor Stack (Trader Joe's)
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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