Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Month: February 2011

Capsule History

Speaking of useless appendages—we were, weren’t we?—one that I love to hate is the capsule. It’s al-ways in the way, Thirsty Reader. It’s useless. It’s not even a reliable guide because so many producers use white or silver on their red wine as well as white, while others use green or blue for everything. I de-clare war on the capsule. I scorn it and I skance it: I pronounce anathema upon it. Fie!

What did it ever do to me? Cop a gander at the array of medieval implements required to remove it. Then what about the waste? Plastic capsules are not recy-clable. The metal ones are (although the likelihood is nil) but they are nevertheless worse: environmen-tally hostile and socially nightmarish. Most of them

P1120470A selection of Conan the Barbarian’s personal medieval slashing weapons. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Enological Cruelty.


originate in countries whose mining practices and worker protections are even worse than ours. Places where, to use an old-fashioned phrase, ‘life is cheap,’ and where human rights are things you often have to negotiate with the police. Places like Bolivia, Brazil, China, Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Vietnam. ‘Nuff said?

Take aluminum. Please! It begins with bauxite ore, which is strip-mined and sent great distances by ship. Elaborate processing requires astronomical quantities of electricity and chemicals and produces poisonous waste you wouldn’t believe. Tin? Pretty much the same—strip mining is common but so are dredging (strip-mining the seabed) and hydraulics (blasting with high-pressure water cannons. It’s pro-cessed in coal furnaces, of course, but I’m sure piggybank only clean coal is used. Aren’t you?  Then there’s lead. Accord-ing to PWP in-house expert Yitzhak New-ton, the Israeli phys-icist and snack-time cookie king, lead is so poisonous it con-stitutes a vertical hazard—one that can cripple and kill at every step from miner to consumer. The latest toxic novelty item from the People’s Lead-

Flavored Republic of China. In this country we have had lead-free housepaint and no-lead gas for several decades now, but don’t depair. To be sure we get our Recommended Daily Allowance, China (natch) has stepped up, exporting lead to us in toothpaste, toys, dinnerware, shopping bags, cosmetics, jewelry, baby formula, drywall (!!) and now even piggy banks. So I’m thinking of having a bumbersticker made up:




Buy Nothing Chinese Except Take-Out.

And then there’s the inconvenience: the capsule is just another thing to be fussed with. Jancis Robin-son (.com) agrees with me: ‘Anything that makes wine hard to get at is something I’m dead against.’ So does Joel Aiken, longtime VP of winemaking for Napa’s Beaulieu (and now top kick of his own outfit, aikenwineconsulting.com): ‘What other drink do you need a tool to open? Consumers shouldn’t be chained to 18th Century technology.’ Both were talking to me specifically about corks v. screwcaps at the time, but I’m sure they don’t cut the capsule any slack.

It’s not as if the capsule is actually useful. Supposedly it protects the cork from mold and suchlike, but surely it does so only when bottles are stored for many years. On the other hand, it will conceal seepage, which is something you’d like to know about sooner rather than later. The dab of wax used by some producers surely provides all the protection needed.

 I’ll own up here, admitting that my animus comes in part from personal clumsiness. I’ve perforated my-self more than a few times with the nasty fang that comes standard with almost every Waiter’s Friend. The fang is being replaced these days by a safe sub-stitute—blunt and serrated—but the necessary saw-ing motion produces a ragged Texas Chainsaw Mas-sacre­ look that offends my finer sensibilities. I have P1120478 also tried a couple of those black plastic affairs, called foil cutters [left], that look so much like tiny pliers: just squeeze and twist and you’re done, or so I’ve heard. Both of mine failed catastro- phically on the first try. The dainty wee steel blades were ripped from their inadequate sockets with consummate ease.

So there’s an end on’t; as they used to say in Shakes-peare’s time. I’ve found my own solution, which is to lay hold of a small knife and swipe away, much as if
Decapitating a bottle of Markham’s lovely The Altruist Cabernet: Sometimes it’s just this neat.

I were sabering a bottle of champagne. My case worker doesn’t like me to play with sharp things, of course, so when she intervenes (in my own best  in- terests, of course) I resort to the thumbnail  tactic, which works most of the time. Still, that helps only me and perhaps you. Wine-lovers at large would be better served (along with the environment, solid- waste disposal sites and innumerable Third World worker’s comp cases, if there were no capsules at all.
While at other times I resort to a crude, medie-
val approach. The wine, an Amapola Creek Zin-fandel, deserves better, so perhaps I should call this the artisanal method.

Now I will surely get from  some offended sommelier a strident note claiming that I am dumbing down wine and insisting that the capsule, like the sacred cork and the traditional popping thereof, is an integ-ral, nay indispensable component of the ‘romance’ and the ‘magic’ of wine, to say nothing of his tip.

To which I reply Screwcap you, buddy.

©2011 Bill Marsano







Valentine Wines: When Beauty Whispers Low Thou Must the Youth Replies I Can

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” may be Tennyson’s most famous line, but his timing is suspect. For one thing, the British poet laureate came late to pitching woo, be-ing a ripe 27 before making cow eyes at his beloved and 41(!) by the time he married her. And in picking spring he was late in the calendar, too. Proposals limp along at some 6,000 a day in the U.S., then jump to 200,000-plus on V-Day itself. Now it’s that time again, so let’s broach the bubbly in glad salute.

But there are problems to solve (modishly known as issues to address). What bubbly? What to do, and not, if proposing? What about Relationship Issues?

As for which bubbly, I say almost any except Cham-pagne. Most Americans have it too seldom—when celebrating New Year’s Eve, say, and christening ocean liners—to develop a taste for it; they recoil from aggressive acidity. Unaccustomed to the stuff, many men will knock theirs back with a grimace and many women will simply ‘wear’ it, like a prop or an accessory, then abandon their seldom-sipped flutes unobtrusively, even furtively after the toasts. For both sexes, then, Champagne is often more of a gesture than a pleasure.

The solution is Italy’s gentler, sweeter, low-alcohol sparkling wines, which also happen to be quite inexpensive most of the time (often enough they’re under $10, one of the last times romance will comeJEIOlabel cheap). Prosecco, which comes from the Veneto, has become an American favorite in recent years. Asti or Asti Spumante), the best-known of Italy’s sparkling wines, comes from Piedmont, which also gives us (in far smaller quantities) Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (a.k.a. Acqui). Leading names in Prosecco include Bisol (left)  and Mionetto, and there are many others. Generally, the least-expensive bottling of any given brand will do splendidly. As for Asti, a.k.a. Asti Spumante it’s still sweet but no longer the gooey, cloy-ing stuff of yore. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano are every-where; other notables include the like of Ceretto, Nando, Bosca Ver-di, Nino Franco, Villa Rosa, Elmo Pio,  Zardetto and Borgo Reale.

Moscato d’Asti is half as sparkly but twice as good. Its Durante Nose offers one of the great moments in the history of human nostrils, so do not, not, not use a flute, lest you stifle the fragrance. Generous, big- bowled, goblet-style glasses like the Italian coppa are required. A list of notable producers would in-clude Contratto, La Serra, Cascinetetta, Michele Chiarlo, Bosio, La Corte, ceretto_26Saracco, Castello del Pog-gio and Ceretto (again). But note that total output is very small, so you’ll be wise to grab almost any bot- tle that you are lucky enough to lay hands on.

Brachetto d’Acqui, red and relatively rare, is full of straw- berry aromas and tastes, and
I could swear that it’s just made for love and choco-late—dark chocolate especially. 

It too is from Piedmont, and it comes from a vine that is  Rosa_Regale_Bottle HRcantankerous, ungenerous of yield and rather picky  about growing sites. Small wonder it was nearly extinct only a few decades ago; equally small wonder that it was saved: Italians have a soft spot for desperate causes. And grazie tante for that, because the wine is a delight even if the vine it-self is a pain, or what used to be called a pill. You’re most likely to find Banfi’s Rosa Regale in its  dis-tinctive trumpet bottle (left) at retail; others in the market include Coppo, Marenco, Sant’Evasio and Rinaldi. Here too, limited production means taking what you can get when you can get it.

So, as the British say, there you are: the Sweet Swain of Valentine’s Day, ready to see which of you will be first to go weak in the knees. And pay no mind, by the way, to all those who cock a snook at sweet wines and the Thirsty Readers who love them. Sweet, sort-of-sweet and extremely sweet wines are produced in all wine-making countries and have been since Moses was a pup. Those who sneer at the “American taste” or “Coca-Cola palate” are snobs, mere and mean. They should be hunted for sport.

If, on the other hand, you are a Champagne devotee, see whether you can pass the test:

The PWP Champagne Challenge

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same . . . as they say and sing, all too often, on Sesame Street

josephperrierlprectperrier-jouet2oerrier waterimagesCA6OB0UM

OK, kids! The answer is Lower Right! That’s the label of Perrier water. Forget that. (The knockout red-head was supplied for sales appeal. Eventually it was realized that a better way to sell bottled water was with a combination of high prices and spurious health claims, especially if the product has to be shipped from somewhere obscure and ridiculously far away, like Fiji or New Zealand.)

And so, if you are what Jane Austen called with her radar-targeted perception, a single man in possession of a good fortune, knock yourself out. But if you flunked the test, then buy and bury yourself in a copy of Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies. And don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to get up to speed by V-Day. It won’t happen, so you, like the Mets, must wait till next year.

So now that you’ve got the girl (you hope) and the ring (I hope), you must at last cause the twain to meet. Which is not so easy, the whole business being stressful. As a fretful colleague put it, “She could say no. Or she could say yes. Pretty scary either way.”

There’s a mania for proposals in extravaganza mode these days: swains sky-diving from airplanes, beaux proposing on the big screen in Times Square, dolts popping the question while driving the Zamboni machine out to center ice in a noisy arena filled with complete strangers. If that’s what you’re thinking of, I’m not talking to you. Ever.

No. You want a nice, pleasant and above all familiar place or ‘venue.’ Your usual restaurant should be fine—you’re regulars there and they know you; all will seem normal. There’s only one thing about this night that should be different from all other nights, so don’t tip your hand by booking some fancy new place. (Odds are she’ll know what’s coming anyway and has practiced for hours feigning surprise, shock and fly-me-to-the-moon, but she’ll play her role and you must play yours).

Order lightly—you may want to skip one course—but otherwise proceed as usual. You’ve ordered the wine ahead of time; have it brought with or in lieu of dessert, and make your move. Hands across the table is fine, but if you want to take a knee be sure you first scope the aisle for, say, incoming busboys. It’s pie-easy, and she’ll love you for it.

There’s just one really important DON’T here: Don’t slip the ring into her glass. At best she’ll have a wet, sticky ring that’ll have to be washed before wearing. At worst—well, there’s nothing remotely romantic about a bride-to-be being doubled over and Heimliched in a crowded restaurant.

And if you think you can save the situation with a lighthearted ’One day we’ll look back on this and laugh,’ think again.

© 2011 Bill Marsano




















Super Bowl Wine

Lucky you, Thirsty Reader: this is the last day for an entire year that you’ll be threatened with an-other What Wine for the Super Bowl? article.

There have been dozens already published this sea-son alone, and I encourage you to ignore all of them. Some are clearly written out of desperation (those will be the ones taking their inspiration from teams colors or geographic origins or similar nonsense that is, as Henry Ford used to say, irrevelant); others are written in deadly earnest and are invariably deadly. This intends not to be among them.

So mere moments from now I’ll be in the rec room of the Bar None Ranch, an open-enrollment spa and dude spread of no repute, and I’ll be joined by some lit’ry pals, including Garçon McCullers, the strug-gling novelist and waitron; Captain Rehab, arche-type of the hard-drinking American novelist; and—visiting from Old Blighty—H. Rider Laggard, the pussy-footing explorer and author of timid adven-ture books for shy boys. We will be drinking beer.

image Football is a violent game in which mobs of enormous over-weight men in body armor beat the bejeezus out of each other in vast arenas, accompanied by the savage cries and hortatory howls of even larger mobs, a.k.a. spectators. If there’s any-thing in there that strikes you as being consonant with wine, I’d be interested to know what it is. Until then, I’m laying it down without hope of appeal that until further notice you should forget any thoughts about wine and proceed to pop yourselves a bevy of longnecks as the only allowable choice. Indeed, most contact sports seem to demand beer. Wine seems utterly out of place save when it’s time to spray a few flagons of bubbly round the winning team’s crazed and testosterone-fueled locker room.

It’s not as if the craft-beer movement hasn’t brought us a plenitude of top-drawer suds, the producers of which deserve our encouragement and custom.

Blue Point Toasted, Saranac’s Adirondack Lager, Sam Adams, Brooklyn,  Sierra Nevada, Magic Hat,
Boulevard Brewing, Harpoon, Full Sail, Anchor Steam, Shipyard—these all are a far cry from the days of Rheingold Extra Dry, of which the best part was the annual Miss Rheingold contest.


You want a wine sport? Try yachting. Or polo. And now . . . it’s fill ‘er time!

© 2011 Bill Marsano

Wine on Screen—and Off

The recent Golden Globes ceremony was the dullest in years, especially for an event that has preened itself as being so much unbuttoned fun as compared to the staid, stolid and stuffy Oscars. Some people blamed the evening’s tedium on the spew of bath-room vulgarities His Smugness Ricky Gervais mis-took for wit. No doubt they played their part, but surely a paucity of drink came into it. Oh, sure, here and there a bottle of Moët poked its lonely neck out of a bucket, but the primary refreshment on the stars’ tables was water. Bottles in abundance and even superabundance littered the GG tables—big, tall bottles, too, that were clearly visible to all and especially to sundry. Smart Water—that was the brand—proved ideal for diluting merriment, but no doubt any brand would do. There’s a reason toasts aren’t given in water.

Still, wine alone can’t save a rum show. The SAG Awards were similarly boring, despite bumpers of Taittinger and tsunamic quantities of Dry Creek Vineyard available for social lubrication. Kim Stare Wallace, a.k.a. Mrs. DCV, long ago got the Screen Actors Guild’s “official wine of” status for the wines she and her husband, Don, produce in Healdsburg, so tables at the event were well irrigated by a vari- ety of their labels. The list included the ’08 SAG Awards Cuvée (naturally) Heritage Zinfandel and Foggy Oaks Chardonnay, as well as the ’09 Sau- vignon Blanc and ’07 Cabernet.

A lineup like that, with Taittinger into the bargain, should have fueled jollity aplenty, so what do you suppose happened? I’m betting that the killjoy here was interrupting the proceedings with a tribute to 94-year-old Ernest Borgnine that would have made a junior-high film club blush and was interminable to boot. Scholars even as we speak are debating its length, some saying five hours, others arguing for six, still others claiming that infants were born, weaned and seen safely through kindergarten even before the McHale’s Navy clips turned up. Neverthe-less, Borgnine, who deserved far better, seemed to be cheerful enough when the thing finally ground to a halt, but I think that was mostly because a] it was over and b] he’d just turned 95.

Dennis_Haysbert  Irrepressible Kim Stare Wallace and golden-voiced Dennis Haysbert close ranks with a jug of Dry Creek Vineyard’s essential oil.

Can we hope for better from the Oscars? Don’t bet on it. As with the Golden Globes and the SAG cere-monies, the thing that will shine through all the fashions, tailoring, styling, jewelry and accessories is the embarrassing fact that stars making a zillion bucks a picture are tongue-tied twits unless they have a script in their hands.

And speaking of wine on the screen . . . Last year about this time I mentioned to an importer that I liked The Olive Garden’s TV commercials because they always showed wine on the tables, which, I added, somewhat redeemed the chain’s fake-Italian cuisine (notably the “Tuscan Garlic” menu). “Don’t knock The Olive Garden,” said the importer—they’re one of our best customers.”

So much is true. The chain does carry a broad selec-tion of Italian wines—among them Martini & Rossi, Castello di Gabbiano, Bertani, Sartori, Rocca delle Macie, Antinori, Col d’Orcia, Ecco Domani, Bottega Vinaia and Castello del Poggio—and the prices seem reasonable, so I held my peace.

No more. After seeing the latest Olive Garden com- mercials I got the importer on the phone and said “Just so you know: your best customer seems to have given up on wine. His latest ads still have glasses on the table, but almost all of them are full of beer.”

As Italians say, brutta figura!

© 2011 Bill Marsano