Wineaux: Dodging wines that irk, provoke, irritate and vex

By From page A7 | July 24, 2014

We keep a sign on our study door that we bought at the San Diego Zoo: “Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bullyrag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize or ruffle the animals.”

I like it for two reasons — it reminds me not to take myself, animal that I am, too seriously. And it reminds me as well to exploit my wordhoard (the wonderful Anglo-Saxon term for “vocabulary” — why did we give it up?).

I seldom write about wines that vex me — why bother? — unless of course, I run across a much overrated, over-oaked fruit bomb from a wine conglomerate with the label of a nonexistent boutique-y-sounding “winery.” Surely such a travesty deserves the occasional rant — and offers a rare opportunity to use “nettle,” “irk” and “plague.”

No, my explorations of the expansiveness of the English language tend to focus on the positive (the happy, the optimistic, the cheerful, the laudatory). Since the hot weather is currently dictating my wine choices, I reach into my hoard for “refreshing” relatives — sprightly, spirited, invigorating, vivacious, snappy, frisky, zingy, zesty, brisk, exuberant— and pick from them the one that best matches the white wine at hand. Or that alliterates with the word that follows.

I often choose the more Anglo-Saxon variant — “lively” — over the Latin one — “vivacious” — just because it’s usually pithier, more down-to-earth, homier, livelier, more informal, less pretentious-sounding. You get the point. (On the other hand, “vivacious” has a certain insouciance that calls up, say, a just-released prosecco, while the Latinate “ebullient” evokes a nice chilled bottle of Scharffenberger Blanc de Noir.)

If we called “sauvignon blanc” by its Anglo-Saxon equivalent, we’d have a “wild white,” which not only makes it seem a lot more down-to-earth but also lends a certain exuberance to an already exuberant grape that has exuberantly made its way from the south of France to nearly every grape-growing region in the world. And it gives wine writers the chance to use otherwise rare descriptors like “grassy,” “grapefruity,” “cat pissy,” “green peppery” as well as the more common “tropical,” “spicy,” “citrus-y.”

Perhaps most exuberant (and most amazingly consistent) of all sauvs are the ones from New Zealand. If you don’t mind a little cat pee on the side. I don’t mind at all. A good New Zealand sauv (NZ, by the way, has been producing this varietal for only 40 years) always make me smile and will invariably enliven a mild goat cheese or enhance a plate of fresh oysters.

I recently enjoyed the 2013 Mohua ($10-13 Nugget, Co-op) with its bright, nicely acidic gooseberry, kiwi, lime and green pepper flavors — and marveled at the way it enhanced my spicy Thai noodles and peanut-y kale salad.

My wine-tasting experience has led me to conclude that drinkers either love or hate New Zealand sauvs. “Wow, deliciously zingy,” or “All I get is grass,” “Why would you want to drink green pepper?” “I don’t like grapefruit to begin with.” I’ll refrain from repeating the cat pee comments.

My current wild white favorite comes from sauvignon blanc’s historic home — the new vintage of Domaine du Salvard “Unique” brought from the Loire Valley by my favorite importer, Kermit Lynch, and available in Davis at Valley Wine Co. ($15).

The Delaille family have been making wine for more than 100 years from their sand, clay and limestone soil vineyards, sustainably farmed, of course. And that experience shows in this crisp, elegant Sancerre-like beauty (grapes from a single vineyard in Cheverny, just west of Sancerre). I had it with a fresh, lightly roasted piece of wild salmon — the two wilds seemed to relish one another’s company.

If you’re looking to stock the fridge, you might balk at that $15, so here’s a less expensive alternative. Not quite so elegant, not quite so layered as Unique, Le Grand Caillou Sauvignon Blanc comes from the same region. Made by the Fournier family, who have been producing Sancerre for generations, this lovely lively little white is clean, brisk and very refreshing with its tropical fruit and citrus flavors, excellent acidity and, like Unique, deep minerality that I don’t much taste in most NZ sauvs.

“Sancerre at half the price!” several critics rave. If you think you don’t like sauvignon blanc, give this a try. At $10 a bottle (Nugget), you can afford to experiment. If you love it, put Unique next on your list.

Since I was doing a wild white tasting, I thought it would be fun to serve a sauv that won a double gold, a best of class of region and a best of California at the recent State Fair competition. To add to the frisson of tasting such a winner, it comes from a winery I’d never heard of, Burnside Road.

I tasted. Now I’m perplexed, flummoxed, bemused, bewildered, uncomprehending and just a little irked. It isn’t that good. OK, some of the tasters liked it, but it seemed boring to me — and a bit too sweet with an unpleasantly bitter undertone. If it hadn’t won all those prizes, I’d have expected less and would maybe have given it a pass. But Best of California? Really? Were the judges tipsy, inebriated, three-sheets-to-the-wind, tiddly, in their cups, soused, blitzed, pickled?

And here’s the “flummoxed” part: After the tasting, I tried to find out about Burnside Road Winery. Little luck. The label seems owned by a San Francisco Company called Ribevi Wines International whose website is not much help. (They aim to discover “wines of rare value,” yada, yada, yada, and bring them to their customers at the best prices, et cetera.)

But are they just distributors for Burnside or is Burnside Road their phantom winery or what? Interestingly, the Vinesse family of wine clubs has Burnside Road wines among their offerings, and I’m suspicious of Vinesse, having joined one of their clubs with disastrous results. And I had the same problem finding information about their “family wineries,” which exist, as far as I can tell, mostly on paper.

One iffy site claims to tell the Burnside Road Winery “story”: “Burnside Road winds through the hills west of Sebastopol, California, flanked by artisan vineyards. This is where Burnside Road is made, although the wine is made from grapes from the best vineyard sites the North Coast wine country of California has to offer.” Whatever that means.

Yes, Burnside Road itself does exist and some wineries live on it, but Burnside Road Winery doesn’t seem to be among them.

You can pick up this medal-garnerer at Nugget for $10, but I suspect you’ll be less annoyed, bothered, worried and harassed — and more refreshed, inspirited, invigorated and exuberant — if you ignore the hype and invest in a bottle of Unique or a local sauvignon blancs like Route 3 or Berryessa Gap.

Or try the reliably delicious Pomelo from Mason Wines in Napa ($10 at Valley Wine, Nugget, Co-op). There’s a whole world of wild white out there.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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