Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against really good wine. I'll drink it whenever I can—especially if someone else is buying.
However, most of the time, I'm on a mission to find something drinkable that I can afford. One friend dubbed this a quest for "the finest of cheap wines, or the cheapest of fine wines." This is not as simple as it seems, or as it once seemed to me. It turns out there are a LOT of cheap wines, most of them deservedly so. There are only a few wines that are worth much more than their piddling price would suggest.
Every once in a while, a small unknown company—often from a part of the world that has not yet been discovered by wine connoisseurs—produces an absolute elixir, but either doesn't know it or doesn't think it has a name prestigious enough to justify a higher price. Somewhere in a wine store, tucked away in the discount section that serious wine drinkers rush past on their way to the Wine Speculator's latest 95-rated wine, these unheralded and ignored gems wait to be discovered.
In a perfect world, I would find one of those magical wines and be happy for life.
Alas, I am not alone in my quest. Who could imagine that, out there, someone as stingy as me would be scouring the also-rans for a real winner? The fact is, there are entirely too many of us. Whenever one of these special wines is found, it seems like everyone finds it at the same time. That damned supply-and-demand rule kicks in, and in no time at all the wine is priced out of my reach. Consequently, like the Flying Dutchman, I must forever search the world for true love.
One summer, maybe twenty years ago, I picked up a bottle of Peñascal, a Tempranillo from Spain that may, or may not, have been labeled with a vintage. In my price range (five or six bucks, back then), vintages were hardly important considerations. I took it home and served it beside a plate of Linguine con Pesto al Genovese.
Now I may be cheap, but I read. I've learned a bit about wines—mostly wines I will never taste. I've studied which wines pair well with certain foods. I can tell the difference between varietals, and can even recognize some stylistic differences between different wines made from the same varietals. In no way, do I qualify as a connoisseur—let alone a wine snob.
I drink the stuff and I (usually) like it.
What always puzzled me, while reading wine books, was their mention of some mysterious effect that occurs when certain foods are matched by certain wines. I could understand that a wine might make a food taste better (or worse), and that the taste of some food might bring out some elusive taste or aroma of a well-matched wine—but wine writers said that, under certain conditions, a combination of wine and food could produce an entirely different flavor, something that wasn't in either beforehand. They were describing some kind of synergistic effect that was the culinary equivalent of Tibetan throat singing.
I didn't believe them.
It is, after all, possible that some experts—in an esoteric subject such as wine—might have a difficult time resisting the urge to show off their prodigious sensory skills, even when such skills are non-existent. How can we, mere mortals, know that they're not just making it up? I'd often read elaborate sensory analyses of wines, listing dozens of rare and unusual aromas, mouthfeels and finishes that—frankly—I never noticed at all.
I could see no reason for believing in all this organoleptic hocus-pocus.
Then, right after swallowing a mouthful of pesto-laden pasta, with garlic and basil still infusing all of my senses, I took a sip of the Peñascal. It was okay, certainly a possible candidate in my good cheap wine quest. Gradually, after swallowing the wine, I became aware of an unexpected presence, somewhere I couldn't quite identify. Emerging in a place that wasn't really my tongue, palate, throat or nose, an ethereal note—exactly like those Tibetan overtones—a ghostly toasted hazelnut manifestation
It briefly shimmered, then faded—leaving me unsure that it had ever really been there.
Gary Allen’s latest book, Herbs: A Global History, is scheduled for publication next spring. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website www.onthetable.us.