Posted by: erdehoff | May 16, 2009

What’s your dirty little secret?

There’s an interesting column in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator in which James Laube explores (subscriber access only, unfortunately) how those low-class wines — or, ugh, wine coolers — many of us take so much pleasure in deriding have actually led many people to far, far better tastes. I have to admit that I’m one of them.

My parents were mostly wine-in-a-box people (think Franzia, not the upscale boxed wines we’re starting to see nowadays), with an occasional splurge for a bottle of Black Swan shiraz or the infamous Sutter Home white zinfandel. I shudder to remember it, but that’s what got me started. I knew just enough to sneer at Mom’s box of Franzia, but I slurped up that sticky pink syrup like it was lemonade. From there I moved on to other budget confections, Blue Nun among them. In my first year or two in the workforce in Northern Virginia, price was my main consideration, so there was a lot of $4 Liebfraumilch and such. And in those days, I mostly bought at Safeway — I never considered going to a wine store because I assumed they had nothing in my price range.

What changed for me? Education. I soon stumbled across a wine store near my house where an importer held free tastings every weekend — almost exclusively European wines, some of them bargains, some decidedly not. I tried them all, and was able to sample dozens of wines I never would have considered, many of which I’d never even heard of. It was eye-opening. Over the next few years, I slowly started to approach wine more thoughtfully, to become aware of my likes and dislikes, and to discover aromas and flavors I’d never known wine could possess. I learned about deliciously floral yet bone-dry Rhone whites, Gruner Veltliner and Sekt from Austria, smooth red Burgundy, full-bodied Barbera, shimmering Prosecco, spicy Zinfandels, velvety Cabs, silky Pinot Noirs … the list goes on. Since moving to San Francisco three years ago, I’ve branched out and discovered the pleasures of New World wines as well — not just the many West Coast vintages available to me here in California, but also New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I’ve barely scratched the surface, I know, but I look forward to digging deeper in the years to come — and I hope my salary rises enough to allow me to sample the higher-end stuff more often than I can afford right now.

I turn up my nose at Sutter Home White Zinfandel these days; I’ve moved on to greener (pinker?) pastures. But I can’t regret the fact that the pink plonk drew me into a world that was vaster than my wildest imaginings. Sutter Home, I salute you. I toast you, in fact — with a glass of Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo Rose, which is far, far better than what I started out with. Cheers!

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