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Wine: Tales of the grape

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Like many, Rob and Susan Polack appreciate good wine.

They aren’t so knowledgeable about it as Rob’s uncle, who belonged to a wine society in New Orleans.

“He had a very good palate. He could take a sip and tell you the year, the vineyard. He could tell you within 100 yards of where the wine came from,” Rob said. “I could never fool him.”

It’s a talent Rob doesn’t share. The Oak Lea couple describe themselves as “recreational winers,” but they appreciate wine enough that they once spent a full year looking for one particular type: a New Zealand chardonnay from CJ Pask.

“We were in New Zealand and we had it there,” Susan recalled. “It turned out they didn’t export it at the time.”

They looked all over the U.S. trying to find it, and managed to locate it briefly in Susan’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn.

“When we did, we held onto it very carefully until we had just the right dinner party or whatever,” Susan said.

But that was 10 years ago and their supply has long since run out.

“I can still taste it,” Susan said. “It was just like butter going down your throat. It was not sharp like I think a lot of our wines are today because so many people are drinking now and they’re produced so fast.”

The Polacks were among 225 people who attended a wine tasting last weekend in the Live Oak Allée at Brookgreen Gardens. The event, in its fourth year, supports Brookgreen’s artistic and horticultural initiatives. It focused on high quality wines that are not mass produced, said François Saudeau, a wine expert who spoke at the event. Saudeau is a wine merchant in Connecticut and has been in the business for nearly 30 years.

“You have two kinds of wineries,” Saudeau said in a lilting accent that conjures up images of a châteaux. “You have what I call the factory wineries, which make hundreds of thousands if not to say millions of wines.”

He named Gallows, Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Beringer as examples.

“Then you have the well-crafted wines where the wines are fermented in a small quantity and then they are aged, and then you have the different batches put together,” Saudeau said. “Those are the finer wines.”

According to Saudeau, “you can’t make a good bottle of wine that will retail for $10 on the shelf. You can find a decent wine, but you’re not going to have a great wine, and there is a good reason for this.”

He talked about marketing costs, the costs of the bottle, label and cork that eat up a lot of that $10 price and cut into profits. It doesn’t leave a lot of money to be spent on good juice, which Saudeau said is the most important thing in making a great wine.

“In order to get good juice you have to have a low yield,” he explained. “The yield is the amount of grapes that come on the vine and that’s why if you go to a vineyard in California or Oregon, the good vineyards, you see the people with shears. We were in France once and my wife said ‘why are there so many grapes on the ground? Why do they waste them?’ It’s because they cut the bunches that are not very strong so that the good bunches will get more sun and they get fuller and richer.

“You could increase the yield, but then the juice you get is diluted, so you have to make a choice. If you want good quality juice you’re going to have lower yield and that’s why it costs more.”

Saudeau’s favorite wine is Tommasi Amarone, an Italian wine made from grapes that have been dried in large baskets so the grapes become “slightly raisiny” before they’re fermented. It’s a little bit sweet and is aged three years. It comes only from the Verona region and “nothing can compare to it,” Saudeau said.

“It’s not inexpensive. It costs between $50 and $80, because it’s an expensive process,” he said. “It takes a lot of grapes to make a little wine, the same as with ice wine.”

Ice wine is a sweet dessert made from grapes that have frozen on the vine.

If someone is only drinking “factory” wines, they’re missing out on the true wine experience, according to Saudeau. He says women occasionally tell him they mix ginger ale into their wine.

“I say, oh, don’t tell me that,” he said, making a dramatic gesture of despair.

If someone wants a $150 or $200 chardonnay, that’s certainly available, but it’s not necessary to pay that much for good wine, according to John Hubbard, a sales consultant for Global wines, a wholesaler out of Raleigh. He sells to restaurants and wine shops from Georgetown to Little River.

“You can get a beautiful chardonnay in the $15 to $20 range,” he said, specifically naming Ferrari-Carano out of California. He doesn’t sell it right now, but he’s a fan.

Picking a good wine is a personal process, according to Hubbard, and depends on the drinker’s budget and palate.

“There are a lot of really good $10 to $12 wines out there,” he said. “If I could drink a 1980 Bordeaux every day of my life, I would. But there are a lot of nice red blends out there in the $15 to $20 range.

To help his customers find the best wines in their price range, Guy Guglielmi, owner of Litchfield Wine and Liquors, specializes in those rated 90 points or higher by publications such as “Wine Spectator” magazine. A score of 100 is considered perfect and anything rated 90 or above is considered a top-notch wine.

“We look for those wines and guide our customers toward those wines depending on their tastes,” Guglielmi said. He helped put on a wine tasting as a benefit for the Litchfield Ballet Foundation last week.

Of course, some customers need more guidance than others. While some who come into the shop know exactly what they want down to the vintage, others don’t have a clue what they’re looking for. “It’s amazing in this area,” he said. “In a tourist kind of area it runs the gamut of just about everything, with people coming in looking for specific wines. Being that there are thousands and thousands of wines, the majority of the time we don’t have them and make a corresponding recommendation and try to offer some guidance.”

Guglielmi also communicates with local restaurants, including Nosh, to find out which wines they serve so they cross-promote. What’s selling in restaurants is a good guide for which wines to carry in the store, he added.

Prosecco, an Italian sparkling white, is one that is growing in popularity, he said. In fact, in the last few years, it has surpassed champaign in popularity.

“The funny thing about wine is that nobody ever knows everything about the wine industry,” Hubbard said. “There are thousands of wine varietals that come out of just Italy. It’s an ever-changing business too. A lot of the chardonnays are being produced differently.”

About one in four bottles of wine sold in the U.S. is a chardonnay, according to Hubbard, and many these days are getting away from the practice of using oak to add flavor.

“It seemed for a long time that [producers] were trying to out-oak everyone, but a lot are being produced now with no oak,” he said.

Relying on a trusted wine seller is a wine drinker’s best bet in finding a great wine made with quality juice at a bargain prices, Saudeau said. Wineries that sell higher priced wines often sell juice they don’t use to other companies and the wine is sold for a smaller price under brands most have never heard of.

“There’s a lot of that,” he said. “That’s where wine merchants such as myself can make a living, because if you have your eyes open you can buy these wines and sell them to your customers and build a reputation by making people happy.”

For many wine drinkers, finding a good wine is mostly a trial and error process.

“There’s a saying: ‘I don’t necessarily know what’s good, but I know what I like.’ That’s kind of a motto a lot of wine drinkers go by,” said Laura Florio of Georgetown, who attended the Brookgreen tasting. It’s certainly her motto. She’s found she likes wines from Oregon and Washington state.

“I like red wines from there. But the best ones are from Italy,” she said.

Florio visited Italy recently and had some wonderful wines. She stayed at a vineyard and was served their house wine. “It was great because there are no sulfites in it, so there’s absolutely no headache.”

Joan Meacham said she favors red wine and pinot noir in particular.

“If I could pick any wine, it would be a pinot noir from Williamatte Valley, Oregon,” she said. “We went to Oregon one time years ago and toured some vineyards and it’s really different from California wines.”

She was thrilled to see there were some from there at the Brookgreen tasting.

For Resi Thomas of Murrells Inlet, her choice of wine depends on the weather.

“On a night like tonight, you want something that’s light and refreshing,” she said at Brookgreen on Saturday evening, when it was warm and humid. “If it’s a cold, winter night, you want to be snuggled down inside in front of the fire place, drinking a totally different wine. It’s all about the time and where you are.”

She said she picks wine based on what she likes rather than based on any rules about what goes with a certain food. Her favorite wine is “real French Champagne,” but she also likes some of the New World wines, of which there were many at Brookgreen.

“I’m always looking for new ones,” she said.

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