Monday, March 30, 2009

Advice From Someone Who Is Selling Plenty

After nearly six months of writing a wine column and related blog, the response has come mostly from wine novices or people who want to take a step up into better $10-$20 wines.

That’s why offering advice from many different sources continues to be a goal.
I’ve written a couple of columns of general advice and will continue to seek the opinions of others with varied backgrounds. My background is from buy, drinking, and tasting a lot of different wines. I think someone who is selling wine every week certainly has an even more credible and broad-based experience to offer.

You can almost always find such people in area wine shops and increasingly they’re turning up in grocery stores. But it’s not just grocery stores in high-income metropolitan suburbs. Reggie McConnell is helping Baesler’s Grocery in Terre Haute move wine you don’t normally find in the supermarket.

Target and a few other stores have a wider selection of wine than most of the big chains, it’s still rare to find a wine steward, advisor, or host in most vino aisles. McConnell ended his business career in 2008 with early retirement. He had always been a wine buff and loves talking wine.

When Bob Baesler approached him about helping stock the shelves of his family-owned grocery, answer questions, and help sell more wine, Reg enthusiastically agreed. Now you can find him on hand Thursday, Friday and Saturdays helping customers select wine and try new wines. He has boosted case sales to nearly 15 percent of the store’s total and more than doubled the wine selection.

The grocery still carries plenty of Yellowtail and other brands you’d expect to see, but McConnell has also brought in an eclectic mix of other wines up to about $25-$30. Operations like Baeslers remain rare and you may not find one near you, but the trend is for more stores to hire wine stewards with the ever-increasing wine sales across the country.

A few metropolitan Indianapolis markets have wine help on hand during busy times of the week.

“While I think it’s a good strategy to find a wine consultant one is comfortable with (whether it be at the retail level, or even a nationally known critic) don’t make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on your advisor's opinions,” McConnell said.

“Wine consultants can be enormously helpful as general guides for the hobbyist. Most folks don’t have the time, money, or inclination to devote untold hours to seeking out new wines. Find a consultant or reviewer whose tastes seem to dovetail with yours and let him/her be your guide. This method can save hobbyists considerable time and cut down on costly mistakes. Should you find that your consultants’ recommendations are not passing muster then find a new consultant.”

Reggie took time out on a recent Saturday morning to talk wine and the wine business. He said the key to any grocery selling more wine was better selection and simply someone there to answer questions.

Too many people find wine to be a mystery. When there is someone there to help buyers out, they buy more wine. Generic advice doesn’t always work, but simple things like reading labels, read the shelf notes, and try lots of different wines, will broaden your wine appreciation.

McConnell has another piece of advice I can heartily endorse.

“Wine’s ability to enhance the taste of food (and vice versa) cannot be overstated,” he said. “I suggest folks new to the hobby begin their journey by introducing wine with the evening meal. It’s amazing how pairing the right wine with the right food can turn one’s everyday dining experience into something truly special. Europeans have known this for centuries, while Americans are just catching on to the notion of enjoying a glass of wine each day.”

My suggestions would be a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with fish, Riesling with simple chicken or turkey dishes, Cabernet or a Zinfandel with steak off the grill, perhaps a Syrah with BBQ, and a nice Sangiovese-based Chianti with your pasta. If you have a food pairing question, go to my blog ( and send me an e-mail.

Howard’ Pick:

Klinker Brick – This is a label instead of a wine. I recently had the Klinker Brick Zinfandel, at about $18, and their Syrah, which was $16. The Klinker Brick label is relatively new but comes from a vineyard that has long sold its grapes to other producers. I thought both wines tasted well above the price you’ll pay for them. Both were great representations of the grape and big, bold-flavored wines. You won’t find Klinker Brick in any market, but I have seen the label in Indiana wine shops.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cabernet - Even the Name Sounds Royal

Cabernet Sauvignon – even the name sounds royal. That’s appropriate for a wine often thought of as the King of Red Grapes!

Cabernet, or “Cab”, is the world’s best known grape varietal. It is the big wine that gets all the attention, headlines, and often sells for really big bucks.

Now let’s be honest here, Cabernet is not what I’d recommend for beginning wine drinkers or even novices. It’s very difficult to find good ones under $20 and it is generally a big-flavored, very tannic, red wine.

But it is the wine most people have heard of and read about. It is the primary grape in the great French Bordeaux wines and it dominates California’s Napa Valley. It is the one red wine most often put away in the cellar to age for a few years, or many years, before drinking.

It’s a hearty grape that is easy to grow, at least in comparison to many others. It likes warm climates and has spread to every major wine growing region of the world.
And you can’t go to any grocery and not find a Cab on the shelf. In a wine shop you’ll find Cabs from around the world. There are many big wines that are actually blends with Cabernet. The traditional Bordeaux blend has long been Cab, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Now days you might find just about any red wine grape blended with Cabernet to soften the big grape’s flavor.

Being a big and brawny grape it’s the wine you want with a great steak. Cabs are usually very dark wines with a flavor of cherry, bell pepper or even green olive. You can almost always taste the oak used in the aging process on the finish as you swallow the wine.

And frankly, there are a lot of bad Cabs out there on the super market and wine shop shelves as well.

I waited 10 columns into this adventure in wine writing to just tackle Cabernet. I’d suggest if you have been drinking Merlot, Malbecs, Syrah and other varietals and have not yet tried Cabs then you are ready to get started.

I’d point you toward Washington State Cabernets initially. I’ll recommend what I think is a very good one below. The Washington Cabs seem more “ready to drink” than many you’ll find from California. They are a bit softer and smoother.

General guidelines never work, but if I was to offer just one I’d say buy a Cabernet that is at least three years old. If you’re not prepared to buy red wine and set it aside for 2-3 years, minimum, then the 3-year rule works well. The bigger the Cabernet the smoother and richer it will become with age.

There are some very palatable Cabs coming from Argentina and Chile. You won’t find many Indiana Cabernets but there is one I can recommend. Huber Winery’s 2006 Cabernet is surprising for a Hoosier Cab at just under $20.

There is nothing better with a steak off the grill than a really big and smooth Cabernet. For most of us the really good Cabs are going to be at or above the top end of what we want to spend on wine. The greatest glass of wine I’ve ever sipped was the iconic Joseph Phelps Insignia from Napa Valley. The current release, a 2004 Cab blend, retails at $225 a bottle! And, that isn’t the top end of what you’ll pay for the signature Napa Valley wines but it does give you a clue.

If you want to buy a really good Cabernet for a special occasion, there are many really great Napa Cabs in the $40-$60 range. Joseph Phelps, Cakebread Cellars, and Chappellet are three I have tasted and think are superb. All three are found in better Indiana wine shops.

But most of us aren’t buying too many bottles at that price point, especially in these economic times. There are good Cabernets out there under $20. And I’d love to hear your recommendations. I’ll include your favorite Cabs in a future column. Just drop me a line with the winery name, vintage year, and where you bought it, with your comments at:

The best two Cabs I’ve ever tasted under $20 are below.

Howard Picks:
Duck Pond 2004 Cabernet – This Washington state Cabernet tastes like $30-$40 wine. It’s big and smooth and ready to drink. I paid $10.99 at an Indianapolis shop and was astonished by the quality.

Green Lion 2005 Cabernet – This Napa Valley Cabernet is a bit bigger than the Duck Pond but also unbelievable wine for around $20. It’s a little harder to find than the Duck Pond but it is available in Indiana. Look for the funky and color label done by the same artist who once did album covers for The Beatles!
Remember to check out my wine blog for regular wine reviews.