Would you like some cheese with that wine?

A lot of time has passed in the wine world since I wrote “I’ll Take Manhattan,” in which I devote a measly two paragraphs to wine. Such a broad category deserves an (albeit slightly cynical) extender.

  1. Love Your Local Wine Merchant; They’ll Love You Back
  2. Life is Short: Drink What You Like
  3. That Being Said, Go to Tastings
  4. A Quick and Dirty List of Good Wine, Fast
  5. Love Unique Labels?
  6. Choosing a Wine Glass
  7. Building a Fruit and Cheese Plate

Love your local wine merchant; They’ll love you back

Because I’m in the events business, I’ve built strong relationships with the local wine shops and distributors. One owner in particular is always leaving cryptic, East-Berlin-style messages like, “Angel, it’s Mickey. I’ve got something great for you, just in from Spain. Spicy, chewy, ZING!” and then click. He’s not a man for valedictions.

What’s particularly great about Mickey is that he runs an independent, tiny wine shop secreted away in a hilly, insular neighborhood that’s virtually impossible to get to from the outside. (It never fails that every time I’m in there, having pulled my truck up in front in the single Emergency Loading Space, two or three distributors will fall into the shop, crusted in ice and snow, way too out-of-breath to sell him anything and just cursing Mickey’s Mount-Everest-worthy location instead.) Because the shop is so small, he doesn’t waste his time with mainstream, grocery-store items: shelf space is at a premium.

Mickey is Italian – he doesn’t mince words.

“That wine is shit,” he’ll tell me when I inquire about a certain bottle. “Only carry it because the wife, she likes it.”

Or, “Stay outta the French section! I’m pissed at the French right now.”

Or, “Don’t touch that, don’t touch that – I know what you need – flood irrigation. I’ve got a box in the back, just came in, haven’t even put it out yet, from Argentina.”

He’s a little bit crazy and a little bit brilliant. He’s constantly loading me up with just the right thing for guest artists, high-level donors, and funky parties. And he never fails to work within my budget – if I tell him I have $11 in my pocket, he’ll find me a good $10.99 bottle of wine. “This one,” he’ll say as he hands me a Malbec, “she won’t embarrass you.”

It beats the pants off those big box stores like Party Universe.

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Life is Short: Drink What You Like

Here’s the thing about wine: if you really want to know about wine, take a beverage survey course. If you don’t have any desire to be a serious collector, and just like drinking the damn stuff, then drink what you want. Try new things.

On my 23rd birthday, my best girlfriend exploded into my apartment, two hours late and wearing a cone-shaped party hat and carrying a bag of plastic champagne glasses in one hand and a bottle of $2.99 champagne.

“I got this at the Seven-Eleven on my way,” she said in her machine-gun-dialogue style. “I don’t care what anyone thinks; it’s my favorite champagne and you can all just go to hell. Since when have we been fancy? LET’S HAVE A TOAST!”

I collapsed in laughter; she’s always been my hero, but never more than that moment.

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That Being Said, go to tastings

If you like wine, tastings are fun. (If you don’t like wine, I imagine they’re like being hit in the face with a brick.) Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to know jack shit about wine to go to a tasting – go because you’re adventurous, and you want to learn, and because you like wine. Sure, there will always be that group cloistered in the corner talking about specific vintages, but there’s also ten people there just as inexperienced as you are who are out having a good time. Take a little notebook or jot down on your iPhone the things you like for purchase then or later. If you’re going to be tasting ten or fifteen glasses, don’t be afraid to spit – that’s what the bucket-thing that everyone else is spitting into is there for.

You don’t have to talk at all if you don’t want – go with a group of friends, talk about the weather or the latest band you’ve seen or the ongoing saga of Jersey Shore. But don’t be afraid to talk, either – there are no wrong words to describe wine. If it smells like freshly cut grass or nail polish remover to you, then it smells like grass or nail polish remover. You’re the one drinking it.

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A quick and dirty list to good wine, fast

Here are some great things I’ve had in the past year that are not particularly upscale, not elitist, not expensive – great wine for your average person. Some can be found at the grocery, and some you may have to scour your local wine shops.

  • Spellbound Chadonnay – vanilla and creme brulee. My favorite “drinks after work” wine.
  • Layer Cake Malbec – big, bold; chocolate, tobacco, and cherries. A must for red meat. $13-$20.
  • Root 1 Cabernet – more chocolate and berries; again good for red sauce or red meat, but worked beautifully against a cheesecake brownie at 4:00am on a second date with Jack. $10-$15.
  • Big House Red and Big House White – Jack and my’s table wines that we keep on hand. Both garner recommends from Wine Spectator (Red at 90 points and White at 83). At $8-$10 a bottle, that’s hard to beat.
  • Can Blau Celler Can Blau – I’ll take Spain and Chile over France any day (although don’t tell the French I said that.) Blackberry, blueberry, and cedar. Earthy and spicy. $17-$20.
  • Isosceles from Justin Vineyards – Okay, so this one’s a little elite, but well worth it. Coffee, nutmeg, black pepper; absolutely delish. Isosceles is our champagne alternative for the most special of occasions. $50-$60.

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Love unique labels?

Check out The Coolist*’s 30 Creative Wine Label Designs.

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Choosing a Wine Glass

I’ve pretty adequately covered glassware already, but here’s the skinny on wine glasses in particular.

So we’ve established that life is too short for: wine you don’t like and: boring crackers. And now: Do your glasses have to have a stem?

No, they do not. Oenophiles will tell you differently, but these are also the same people that say you should only serve boring crackers on a cheese plate and wouldn’t drink $2.99 champagne at gunpoint. If you want to be a wine snob, take a class or buy a book – this article is for the rest of us. Like my Daddy always said, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

That tirade over with, I don’t have stemmed wine glasses. Look, we’re a family with three dogs and a plethora of friends from different backgrounds and knowledges – stemless wine glasses are less likely to topple over or break when someone sets them down too hard, and they’re less intimidating. Yes, your fingerprints get all over them. Is Wallis coming to dinner? No? Then who cares?

Now, stems or no stems, here’s the basics:

Ground Rules:

  • No frosted or colored glass. Part of the fun of wine is the color, whether it’s $10 or $100, and you can’t see it in a frosted or colored glass.
  • No champagne glasses shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else because I love the 1920s feeling you get from drinking champagne out of those flattened glasses, but it kills the bubbles and the flavor. If you’re going to have champagne glasses, buy the tall, slender ones.
  • If they’re nice glasses, wash them by hand with hot water and a touch (2-3 drops) of detergent. If they’re $2.00 glasses from Target, you can pop them in the dishwasher with no detergent. Either way, inspect them for scum after washing (anytime your hands touch food and then a glass, scum can build), and buff away water spots with a linen cloth.
  • Don’t store them on their bowls. For regular glasses – like juice glasses – I was always taught to turn them upside-down to lessen the collection of dust. Wine glasses are the opposite – the rim of the glass is delicate; you’re more likely to break them if you store them upside down. Keep them right-side up, with their foot or base sitting on the shelf.

And now, the glasses:

Red wine glasses: should be larger, because reds generally need room to breathe. And you’re going to want to swish. You can’t swish in a 6 oz glass. Here are some examples:

White wine glasses: generally smaller and narrower, because the smells are more delicate and need to be concentrated.

Besides my 2-second primer, Wikipedia has a decent article on wine glasses here.

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Building a Fruit & Cheese Plate

Building a cheese plate is simple. Jack and I can eat an entire pound of Havarti Dill in a sitting. Here are the basics:

Don’t overbuy. 3-4 cheeses is plenty.

Aim for a variety, but don’t antagonize. Some people (um, me) are freaky about the texture of things. You’ll want a hard cheese, a soft cheese, and a semi-soft cheese to give people variety.

Know how to eat a cheese plate yourself. I have seen many a beautiful cheese plate mimic a certain exploitative Discovery Channel show in under ten minutes. Chow.com has a short, graceful little article about this, my favorite line being “Some people actually want to taste a pure, snowy chèvre without crumbs of Gorgonzola sticking to it.”

Crackers. Lots of people say to only pair your cheese with plain crackers – to this, I say “pish-posh.” Cheese and crackers are like wine; if you like it, eat it. Life’s too short for me to not cram a delicious herbed cracker with a slice of cheddar into my mouth.

Fruit. Like flowers and fish, stick with what’s fresh in your area. If it’s the dead of winter and nothing looks good, try some dried fruit. (I’m guilty of pairing dried cranberries with everything that doesn’t move.) I always choose grapes and berries because I can wash them easily and throw them out there. Apples and pears require slicing, and I can’t stand the way they turn brown when exposed to oxygen – I don’t have to time to track down vitamin C powder or soak them in ginger ale or any other of those housewify little tricks. Also, if you’re in a hurry (as I always am), try jams, fruit spreads, and honey.

Cutting. Fromages.com has an illustrated article on properly slicing your cheese depending on type.

Serving. We get along fine with a nice cutting board and a Petite Cheese Knife set from Sur la Table. You can too.

IT’S A-LIIIVE! Why does your cheese taste weird and plastic-y? Because you wrapped it in plastic wrap, you dunce, and it met an untimely death by strangulation. Parchment paper is something you should have on hard anyway (since when has plastic wrap ever clung to anything but itself?) – use it for your cheese so the cheese can breathe properly.

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