Where Can You Find Great Wine?
By Melissa Palmer
People who are passionate about wine often remember the glass that moved them from casual drinker to serious connoisseur. For Cafe Med owner Meir Brown, it was a Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon.
"It made me sit up and notice," Brown remembers. "And then I knew that I wanted to learn more about this wine. Wine is like that. A glass that is really good just grabs you — and suddenly you want to learn more and more."
Drinking wine is a deeply sensuous experience that involves far more than just the rich, distinctive flavors of the grapes in the glass. Listen as the wine flows from the bottle; breathe in the aroma of pears or cherries on the nose as the glass is swirled to let the full fragrance blossom. A wine aficionado will admire the intense garnet of a peppery Zinfandel, tilting the glass slightly to see how the color deepens and becomes more concentrated around the edges. And then the taste, slowly filling the mouth, swirling around the tongue...
Hold on a minute! Before we turn a simple glass of wine into some overblown parody of the 2004 hit movie "Sideways," remember that what tastes great to you might be very different to someone else.
"A great glass of wine comes down to whatever is a great glass of wine for you," says Jeramy Brown, serious wine lover and co-owner of Valentien Restaurant & Wine Bar. "It can be sweet or dry, big, light, or cold. A $5 rose or a '72 Bordeaux. The only thing that will influence the way it tastes is what you like. But what do you like?"
For a generation raised on Diet Coke, sometimes the answers aren't so easy. And to make it even more difficult, the bewildering array of wine terms confronting novice drinkers often borders on the indecipherable. Valentien's Brown narrows it down with a few pointed questions that get to the heart of what his customers will enjoy.
"When you order dinner, think about what you'll be eating. Is it sweet or savory? You want your wine to complement it, so are you looking for something that is sweet or dry? White or red? From there, you can start narrowing it down. Room temperature or cold? A few questions can lead to the perfect find for someone who wants to try something new but isn't sure what he or she is looking for."
Michael Dillaway, former Trader Joe's store manager, agrees that individual taste is the key to a great glass of wine, and like all true wine lovers, he uses more than just his sense of taste when enjoying a glass. "If it smells good on your nose," Dillaway says, "it's going to taste good on the palate. Taste is strongly associated with what you smell. A bite of apple tastes very much like the bite of a potato until you smell them — and then you can really taste the differences." Experts may have different opinions on individual bottles of wine, but they all agree that there are a few universal characteristics of what makes a wine great. For Dillaway, it's all about what is known as "mouthfeel."
"Think about how it feels to chew a mouthful of aluminum foil. It's a bad feeling, isn't it?" Dillaway laughs. "Now imagine the smoothness of a chocolate truffle. It feels good in your mouth, velvety and delicious. That's the mouthfeel. You want a wine that has the same velvety smoothness in your mouth."
With more than 17 years in the restaurant business, Cafe Med's Brown knows what people enjoy — and he's happy to share both his wines and his expertise with his customers and friends. "With reds, I would start with a good California Shiraz or a Merlot that's soft," says Brown, who has helped thousands of Bakersfield wine enthusiasts discover exciting new flavors from around the world. "With whites, I'd go with a Chardonnay, perhaps one with more residual sugar and a lot of butteriness, but at the same time not too sweet." By choosing a wine with a low percentage of residual sugar, Brown explains, the slight sweetness will help balance the wine's natural acidity, making it an excellent choice for people who are unsure about what they will enjoy.
Both Meir Brown and Jeramy Brown (who are not related) know that learning about wine is a lifelong pleasure best enjoyed in the company of friends, and they're always planning new ways for other Bakersfield wine lovers to raise a glass together. Cafe Med's tastings are on the last Friday of every month, and with the restaurant's extensive network of suppliers, they are definitely a hot ticket. Cafe Med's Brown notes that his annual Zinfandel tasting, held the day after Thanksgiving, has become an annual tradition with more than 70 different bottles poured by guests.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Valentien's outdoor courtyard, more than 80 people gathered for a blind tasting of six very different Pinot Noirs, described by various guests as "smells like cherries," "caramel with a hint of anise," and even the more prosaic "that's damn tasty." Valentien's offers a varietal blind tasting every month, and when the scores are tallied Brown often finds that it's not always the most expensive wines that come away with the highest rankings. "They're all good wines," he says, "but sometimes we're surprised by what people prefer."
Great wine doesn't have to be expensive. Trader Joe's carries a wide variety of excellent wines, such as a northern-style Rhone that Dillaway describes as "big and jammy," or California Zinfandels that have a spiciness and complexity that is popular right now and can be had for around $20 a bottle.
Valentien's Brown knows that wine beauty is in the eye (and tastebuds) of the beholder, so to ensure that his customers are absolutely satisfied with what they're drinking he offers a one-ounce pour so that people can sample the goods before they commit. "You know what you like. You know what tastes good to you. That's the only thing that matters."