I’m sitting at a small table with four items on it — a beet salad, a dish of sautéed swiss chard, a glass of an inexpensive Portuguese red blend and a glass of Carneros pinot noir that costs about four times as much.
I’ve had the Portuguese wine many times before. I like it. It goes well with food, even such hard-to-pair-with-red dishes as the ones in front of me. The pinot noir I tasted for the first time just a couple of hours ago. It’s good, but I’m not jumping up and down about it.
I take a sip of the Portuguese red and start composing this column in my head. It goes something like this: “Sometimes all you need — and all you want — is a simple, straightforward wine. If, for example, you’re eating alone and having a plate of assorted beets with vinaigrette or a dish of simply prepared greens, why complicate things? Under the circumstances, you won’t enjoy an expensive wine any more than this under-$10 bargain.”
In the back of my mind, as I’m formulating these sentences, is an article I read recently called something like “Does good wine really cost more to make?” The question was phrased in such a way that I expected the answer to be “no,” or at least a qualified “no,” but, in fact, the answer was an unqualified “yes.”
I know a lot of winemakers and grape growers — they’d certainly agree. Paying close attention to your grapes costs a lot, either in your labor or someone else’s. Being willing — and able —to discard the unripe, the over-ripe and the fatally blemished means lower yield, and the best vines have relatively low yields to begin with. Growing fussy grapes like pinot takes even more work. And the growing expenses are just the beginning.
I know all this, but of course I’d love someone to show me how you can get just as good results from high-yielding, machine-harvested vineyards and large-scale fermentation techniques.
Sometimes writers try to prove this by gleefully pointing out that even wine experts sometimes, in a blind tasting, rate a cheap-o over an expensive bottle. But that “proof” has never convinced me. I’ve too often thought a cheap wine was really good after a taste or two, only to buy a bottle (or, worse, a case) and tire of it after the first glass. Maybe even positively dislike it after the first bottle.
I’ve had that experience with more expensive wines, too, but not often.
But the converse or inverse or whatever the correct word is is even more common — that is, I’m not initially impressed with a sip but over the course of my meal, I come to appreciate the wine. Sometimes I even fall in love. This, alas, almost never happens with a cheap bottle.
But — back to the dinner at hand — that’s not really the issue here, is it? I just want a pleasant accompaniment to my pink and gold and green dinner.
I alternate sips. A bite of beet, a sip of the blend; another bite, a sip of the pinot. A bite of the greens, a sip of the blend. And so on. At about sip Round 3, I realize with a sinking feeling that all those trial sentences rolling around in my head are about to become worthless.
Yes, the Portuguese wine is fine but the pinot is popping. I find myself taking smaller sips because I can’t bear to come to the bottom of the glass. The beet salad begins to taste like the best beet salad ever and the humble greens — sublime.
Yes, the food is good with the blend, but it’s exquisite with the pinot. Darn. (Actually the word that comes to mind is slightly raunchier.) I am enjoying the pinot more. A lot more. I do want a complex wine with my simple dinner. I want another glass of this pinot. Rather badly.
It’s not in the week’s budget, though, and so I finish off the very last drop, go back to the blend and repeat to myself the Wineaux slogan: If you can’t be with the wine you love, love the wine you’re with.
And the wine I’m with is the large-scale production Quinta das Amoras (which I’ve written about before), a blend of castelao, camarate, tinta miuda and touriga nacional. Really, it’s a good, solid, intense wine that smells of cherries and tastes of black currant and berries with a hint of leather. Aged briefly in Portuguese oak, it’s a very versatile red, fruity but dry and low in alcohol (12.5 percent). “Eminently drinkable,” we call it at my house — and only $8 at Valley Wine Company. Casa Santos Lima, the producer, makes about a million cases of wine a year.
The other wine?
It’s the 2010 Merryvale Pinot Noir (Double Gold — Chronicle competition) from a 25-year-old, family-owned winery in Napa. The grapes for this limited production wine came from three vineyards in the Carneros appellation, were hand-picked and sorted, aged in French oak for 12 months, and bottled unfined and unfiltered. Merryvale prides itself on its sustainable growing and producing practices.
One example is its extensive and award-winning recycling program, and Merryvale has been certified by both Napa Green Winery and Napa Green Farm. The Merryvale folks make 1/10 of the wine that Casa Santos Lima makes.
The wine itself has a fairly typical-of-pinot nose — red cherry, wild strawberry, baking spices — and a bright fruit taste, tempered by stone and earth. Medium-bodied, it’s low in alcohol for a California pinot — 13.5 percent. I don’t have to tell you that it’s food-friendly. And I probably don’t have to tell you that it costs $35 a bottle. Alas.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at email@example.com. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com